By Jacob Wheeler
There’s a new guy in town, and he’s definitely not from around here. All this month the local papers, TV stations, and gossip have focused on Eneliko Sean Smith, the enigmatic 39-year-old boxer turned businessman who recently moved to northern Michigan from Las Vegas with his stunning 19-year-old wife, and singer, Sarah Frances Johnston. By the end of April, “Liko” Smith intends to buy Sugar Loaf, the once popular ski resort, hotel and golf course located in the middle of Leelanau County, between Glen Arbor, Cedar and Leland. He hopes to renovate and open it by July 4.
Sugar Loaf closed in 2000 and hasn’t seen the light of day in a decade. Former owner Remo Polselli, who owned the resort from 1997 until 2000, was sentenced in 2003 to federal prison for tax evasion. Kate Wickstrom purchased Sugar Loaf from Polselli in 2005, but Polselli’s wife, Hanna Karcho, maintained a financial stake in the resort, and Wickstrom was unable to clear financial and legal hurdles to re-open Sugar Loaf. Some of those hurdles stemmed from Sugar Loaf not owning the wastewater treatment plant that serves the resort and nearby residential properties.
Smith intends to buy Sugar Loaf, including the hotel and ski hills, as well as the adjacent golf course, “Sugar Loaf The Old Course,” the wastewater treatment plant, and nearby properties — all to the tune of approximately $10 million, with the help of Florida-based TransCapital Bank.
And yet northern Michigan has collectively reacted to the potentially dynamite news with extreme caution. Why? As “Liko” Smith admits, “I Google terribly.”
Smith’s venture with the alternative, snowboarder-targeted The Block hotels in Lake Tahoe, on the California-Nevada border, fell apart last year, and he was briefly held by local police for failing to pay taxes on one of the hotels. Former investors in The Block hotels have attacked Smith on Internet forums, and a deal with hotel heiress Nicky Hilton also imploded — though Hilton’s suit against Smith was dismissed for lack of evidence.
“On the Internet, nobody is accountable for the trash and the lies they put out there,” Smith told the Leelanau Enterprise last week. “My business record up to the point of The Block’s fall was impeccable … for six years, until it collapsed due to suffering hotel submarkets and an overextension of television and marketing along with a crippling economy. … My biggest mistake was partnering with a bunch of young, week-kneed investors that take shots online because it’s the most anonymous place in the world.”
In the age of the Internet, citizen reporting, and reality television, bad news has followed “Liko” Smith — fair or not — like a swarm of bees. To top it off, the fallout from his previous marriage became “public domain” earlier this year when his ex-wife appeared on the reality TV show “High School Reunion”.
And yet, his potential purchase of Sugar Loaf represents incredible hope for Leelanau County and the coming tourism season. Just imagine what the resort would do for the local economy, jobs, and the winter skiing and snowboarding season … if Sugar Loaf can beat the odds and re-open after a decade of growing cobwebs.
Not surprisingly, locals have voiced as much caution as they have shown excitement about the enigmatic, perhaps eccentric, outsider. My favorite online comment was “Can you see them at the Northport book club?” (Liko and Sarah are currently staying at the Cambria Suites in Traverse City, but plan to move soon to nearby Northport.) And local journalists — both professional and amateur — have scowered the Internet for clues about Liko Smith, his business acumen, and the extent of his ties to Remo Polselli.
In our interview earlier this week, we attempted instead to uncover a more personal side of Liko Smith. What did we learn from the Samoan boxer and son of a Green Beret?
In short: He’s excited about the local emotion surrounding Sugar Loaf. He thinks that only a businessman with a track record can take on this challenge. It’s too early for a master plan. He uses boxing metaphors to describe his business ventures. He watches Fox News on occasion, eats out a lot, and relaxes to his wife’s singing voice. He believes that folks in the utilitarian “meat and potatoes” Midwest need more substance (as opposed to gimmicks) to win them over than people on the West Coast do. He thinks the chances of opening Sugar Loaf by July 4 are 60-40 at this point. He and Sarah want the help of locals to gather historical memorabilia about the resort. He wants Sugar Loaf to reflect northern Michigan, and not Vegas or L.A. He admits to accepting occasional business advice from Remo Polselli, who, he says, local media have given a bad rap. He’s ready to invest heavily in snowmaking equipment and isn’t worried about global warming, which he calls “between Al Gore and God.” He uses his middle name “Sean” for business, and “Liko” for personal interaction. He thinks he’ll still be here in 10 years from now, and probably investing in ecological, sustainable developments.It’s clear that this move to the Midwest is a chance for Liko Smith to rejuvenate his career and reputation. And if he can revive Sugar Loaf in the process, what a marriage it would be!
Please click here to read our interview with Liko Smith (and stay tuned for more Glen Arbor Sun coverage of Sugar Loaf resort. We’ll publish our first print edition on May 27.):