By Jacob Wheeler
Leelanau County’s “elephant in the room”, the long-shuttered Sugar Loaf ski resort, is back in the news following a quiet autumn season after the eccentric Las Vegas boxer-turned-businessman Liko Smith returned to the West Coast empty-handed.
Resort owner Kate Wickstrom has been courted in recent months by at least two suitors, Chuck Weiler — to whom Liko Smith alluded this summer as a possible partner, but is now reportedly acting alone — and David Skjaerlund, from Owosso, near Lansing. In a feature story for this month’s edition of Traverse Magazine, editor Jeff Smith reports that Skjaerlund has “spent the past several months getting options on several Sugar Loaf town houses and nearby properties.”
A rural developer with a Ph.D. in Animal Science, Skjaerlund unsuccessfully attempted to build a $100 million ethanol plant near Ithaca, Mich., but the plan failed when the ethanol market collapsed three years ago. Unlike Liko Smith, Skjaerlund has maintained a low profile and has not returned phone calls from reporters.
Here’s a video of Skjaerlund discussing agricultural zoning:
With respect to Sugar Loaf, whose chairlifts haven’t carried skiers up the mountain since 2000, Skjaerlund’s name first surfaced on the Internet on Aug. 6, on the “Weekly Update” part of Liko Smith’s blog.
“Word on the street is that a Dave Skjaerlund of Grand Rapids is interested in buying Sugar Loaf. His company Liberty receives 15 million from an auction sale, plans to put towards Sugar Loaf, however, nobody has heard from him, no due diligence has been performed, claims from several sources that he is immensely interested. Attempted to create Chemical Plant earlier in the decade, lost funding but very smart cat.”
As proceedings drag on between potential buyers and her lawyer Joe Quandt, Wickstrom has seen no signs that a deal is imminent. “Things just keep dragging out,” she told the Glen Arbor Sun this week.
Wickstrom would not disclose any details, but confirmed that she knew of Skjaerlund, though she said that a deal is no further ahead than it was three months ago. Calls to Skjaerlund have not been returned.
Wickstrom doesn’t believe that Skjaerlund has any interest in using Sugar Loaf for ethanol. Rumors have circulated on the Leelanau.com blog that Skjaerlund is interested in a wine operation.
Jeff Smith’s narrative historical feature in the December edition of Traverse Magazine (it’s not yet online) is an excellent read. The story chronicles the rise and fall of Sugar Loaf, once Leelanau County’s largest employer.
Here are the story’s chronological highlights:
• Dan Matthies moving to the area in 1970 to teach French skiing techniques at what was heralded as “the best ski school in the state”. Smith writes that he became enthralled with the area, began selling real estate at the resort, and never left.
• Sugar Loaf declaring bankruptcy in 1981 after “borrowing money at too high an interest rate” when expanding the hotel in the ’70s.
• Attorney John Sills and a group of investors from Detroit bought the resort, including one golf course, the airstrip, the hotel, the ski hill, a wastewater treatment plant and nearly 1,600 acres, for $7.5 million.
• Under-marketed, and perhaps hurt by disappointing snow levels, the resort fell on harder times by the ’90s. Sills added another, Arnold Palmer-designed golf course. Matthies moved out in 1998.
• In 1997 Remo Polselli from Southfield, near Detroit, entered the picture, spruced up the lodge, but failed to secure a liquor license. Sugar Loaf closed in 2000.
• As reported by Eric Carlson of the Leelanau Enterprise, a family including a (pregnant) mother, father, grandparents and seven children moved into the shuttered resort (which lacked running water) to start a religious-based family camp. They were booted by the health department after a few weeks.
• In 2003 Polselli pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion charges unrelated to Sugar Loaf, and spent two years in prison.
• Wickstrom, a Leelanau County local who operated a Narconon addiction treatment center downstate, purchased the resort in 2005 for $5.7 million. She held a party at nearby Sugarfoot Saloon in anticipation of re-opening the resort soon. But nothing happened, save for Wickstrom replacing some windows in the hotel and picking weeds from a flowerbed.
• Reports of suitors have come and gone in recent years, and speculation ran high when the Enterprise reported that Polselli’s wife Hanna Karcho was listed as the sole owner of the bank that held Wickstrom’s mortgage.
• This past spring, Las Vegas hotel and “extreme sport” entrepreneur Eneliko Sean “Liko” Smith’s personality made a splash in the local media. Liko Smith claimed he’d open by July 4 and have the lifts running this winter, but his lack of money, past legal troubles, ties to Polselli, missteps building support among locals, and conflicts with Kate Wickstrom, quickly doomed him.
The brash and confident Liko Smith who arrived here in the spring with his model-like, 19-year-old wife limped back to Vegas with his tail between his legs by late summer with bills unpaid at Red Ginger and other area restaurants, and his name no good at area hotels. Suffice to say, “Liko-polooza” was the big story of the summer of 2010.
Liko-polooza’s last act
By Jacob Wheeler
“Coyote sleeps with everyone and, in the morning, it turns out that he was a she …” — folksinger Greg Brown
Problem was, no one in these parts was actually seduced by the coyote. Not by his lofty words, not by his cliched view of the “meat and potatoes” Midwest, not by his shiny Jaguar with Nevada plates, not by the singing teenage vixen at his side, and certainly not by his promises that the cobweb-laden resort would re-open within months. The backwater, podunk-ville that he envisioned never opened its doors to the mysterious foreigner.
Instead, the Liko Smith that northern Michigan will remember was one who boastfully rented out a posh Traverse City restaurant for a fundraiser and then tried to avoid paying his tab; held business meetings in Leelanau County restaurants during the dinnertime rush hour and ordered only toast, or tried to sneak his own food in with him; and found himself locked out of his hotel rooms in Traverse City when his maxed-out credit card couldn’t pay the room rate.
Curious about this eccentric character — perhaps the antithesis of the Midwestern commonman — I drove up to Sugar Loaf mountain early on a spring evening in the first week of May, to get a visual image of the story that had splashed all over the local media. It was a beautiful picture: the mountain awash in green, the sun sinking into the western sky and casting a pretty glow over Leelanau County, the roads and forests not yet crowded, as tourism season wouldn’t arrive until Memorial Day.
I didn’t expect to see Liko Smith — you don’t walk the forest expecting to see the coyote. The Vegas man had recently commandeered the front page of the Leelanau Enterprise, appeared on local AM radio, given an exclusive interview to the Glen Arbor Sun, and given the impression that he had all but named his son after the Manitou Islands. But he’d checked out of his hotel in Traverse City, wasn’t answering his cell phone, and everyone I talked to suspected he had returned to Sin City.
As I drove by the old golf course adjacent to the ski hill, something caught my eye and made me pull the car to the side of the road. Did I just see a girl in a black cocktail dress, shoeless, hiding under a tree? I got out of the car and walked back. Sure enough, there was Liko’s 19-year-old newlywed, crouched under the foliage, like an actor in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — her hair frazzled and her hands covered in dirt. “What on earth …?” I asked after introducing myself. “My wedding ring,” she replied in her New Zealand kiwi accent. “We were playing here under the tree, and I lost it in the brush … Liko will be so angry if I can’t find it. He spent a lot of money on that ring. … But I found the pennies that I threw into the brush pile, just not the ring.”
Bewildered, but curious, I offered to help look for the ring. Just then, we heard the sound of a powerful car engine approaching us. There was the Jaguar with Nevada plates, and out of it stepped Liko Smith. The wife playfully introduced me to Liko as “her new boyfriend,” and I methodically backtracked, with my feet and my words, for fear of antagonizing the unpredictable, onetime Samoan boxer. Pleasantries were exchanged. Based on his tone, Liko clearly adored the local media and was confident that he had local public opinion in the palm of his hand.
“The papers will be signed, and the deal will be done, within a couple weeks,” Liko boasted, “and we’ll have Sugar Loaf open again by July 4.”
Looming behind him, I saw the mountain’s one-time signature run, “Awful-Awful”, awash in early evening orange. I remembered the first time I skied down that death-defying steep hill without wiping out. I must have been 11 years old. At the time, “Awful-Awful” was the biggest challenge in the world. If I could master that, I could master anything.
I snapped out of the reminiscent daydream to listen to Liko’s lofty promises. But they just didn’t click with the reality before me. A ski hill and resort legally parceled off from the golf course, the townhouses, the lucrative real estate and the drainage field. A building full of cobwebs and mold that probably needed to be replaced. Chairlifts that wouldn’t satisfy anyone’s safety standard. The need for $15 million in fresh capital, and yet this guy before me wouldn’t order anything more than toast at local restaurants. His words didn’t fit. He didn’t fit.
As I drove back down Sugar Loaf Mountain Road, toward M-22, the sun set once again, leaving the mountain in darkness.