A breath of fresh air may have descended on Sugar Loaf. Just weeks before snow is likely to fall on the downtrodden Leelanau County ski hill whose chairlifts have sat idle for nearly 12 years, a local resort owner is developing a plan that would open the mountain to cross-country skiing and ice climbing — perhaps this winter.
Erik Zehender, fourth generation co-owner of Fountain Point Resort in nearby Lake Leelanau, is negotiating with Sugar Loaf owner Kate Wickstrom to lease the mountain from her and create the Sugar Loaf Mountain Club, a nonprofit that would offer backcountry and groomed trails to members of the club who, in Zehender’s words, “participate in the costs of insurance, grooming, outhouses, warming huts, parking, plowing, safety programs and other operating expenses.”
Empire resident and Director of Sales and Marketing at DW North, Rick Desrochers, and Glen Arborite Eric Luthardt, a Product Line Manager at Flow Snowboarding, have assisted Zehender. According to Wickstrom, those two “believe in Sugar Loaf and have stood by me. I wouldn’t go forward without them.” Desrochers and Luthardt have worked with Wickstrom for over a year, and she says they bring ideas to resurrect the resort lodge and mountain.
Wickstrom confirmed that discussions are underway to lease the mountain to Zehender for a cross-country skiing and ice-climbing club. A deal might be complete by Thanksgiving. Of course, opportunist adventurers and skiers have used the mountain for many of the past 12 years, but the Sugar Loaf Mountain Club would provide an opportunity for them to ski legally.
“Erik (Luthardt), Rick and I are all extremely grateful to Kate for the chance to give this nonprofit idea a try,” said Zehender. “The Mountain Club would be a local solution.”
Zehender is the first entrepreneur to publicly make a bid to revitalize Sugar Loaf since the eccentric Las Vegas boxer-turned-businessman Liko Smith splashed on the scene in April 2010 and then disappeared once it became clear that he had no money to buy the resort. An outright acquisition, restoration of the lodge and redevelopment of the hills and chairlifts were estimated to cost over $15 million. Smith ultimately alienated Wickstrom, and speculation swirled that he was working for Remo and Hanna Karcho Polselli, the resort’s former owners and current guarantors of Sugar Loaf’s mortgage. Remo Polselli is a convicted felon who served a prison sentence for tax evasion, unrelated to Sugar Loaf.
Wickstrom told the Glen Arbor Sun that she is currently negotiating with Polselli. She said that in the past month, for the first time, she’s been in direct contact with him, whereas before that, Wickstrom’s lawyer Joe Quandt acted as her liaison.
“Remo just wants to get out of the picture: the county just wants Remo out of the picture,” said Wickstrom, who called Zehender’s proposal a possible win-win situation.” Wickstrom said she had no idea whether any other suitors were on the verge of making an offer for Sugar Loaf.
The names David Skjaerlund and Chuck Weiler were floated in the media last winter as possible buyers.
“People come forward, say they want to buy the place and tie you up for months,” lamented Wickstrom, who worries that she’s lost credibility within Leelanau County. “This is a last-ditch effort to do something.
“Having this team in place sheds a whole new light on the possibility of a rebirth of the resort. The intent has always been to give Sugar Loaf back to the people.”
How backcountry skiing and ice climbing would work
The mountain’s grounded chairlifts, which would cost millions to repair or replace, don’t dissuade Zehender, whose plan for the Sugar Loaf Mountain Club includes providing “skins” to help skiers ascend smaller hills such as “Peppie” or “Devil’s Elbow” in order to reach and descend the Black Diamonds, particularly “Awful, Awful”. Backcountry and telemark is original, “old-style” skiing and rapidly growing in popularity across the country. Zehender also plans to introduce the sport of ice climbing to the region by installing a water-trickle system down the run known as “Manitou”.
“This effort will focus on the experience of skiers and outdoorsmen seeking the extraordinary natural beauty and views that only Sugar Loaf offers without all the crowds of other regional ski areas,” Zehender said.
The entrepreneur hopes that owners of properties neighboring the mountain with good terrain will sign similar lease agreements with the Mountain Club in order to enhance the ski area’s potential. But such agreements are not necessarily critical to his potential deal with Wickstrom, Zehender added.
The National Ski Area Association, the U.S. Telemark Ski Association and the Midwest Ski Areas Association have all reportedly offered guidance; Zehender has approached the Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation (TART) Trails about grooming the cross-country ski trails, and possibly linking Sugar Loaf to its ambitious trail system in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (TART has been a key partner in developing the Sleeping Bear Dunes Heritage multi-use bike trail), and Zehender said that Traverse City Mayor Chris Bzdok offered to defer most billing for legal expenses until club membership grows.
The Fountain Point owner said he would pay the initial club formation insurance cost himself, but that the reopening of Sugar Loaf ultimately “needs to be a community effort and not just a private venture.”
An acquisition to follow?
Zehender has floated the idea of working together with a land stewardship nonprofit such as the Leelanau Conservancy to acquire the property from Wickstrom — which includes the mountain and the lodge — and issue ownership shares to the public, particularly local residents and stakeholders. Rick Desrochers mentioned the Mad River Glen Ski Area in Vermont, which sells $2,000 shares, as a successful example of a community-owned ski hill.
“We believe 12 years is long enough to wait for an entrepreneurial hero to parachute in and buy Sugar Loaf,” emphasized Zehender. “In the current market for commercial loans, we believe a buyer would never secure traditional bank financing anyway.
“Over time, as membership dues and the sale of shares allow, limited lift service and building refurbishments will take place, but this may take several years. Baby steps are better than no steps at all.”
UpNorthLive.com published this video story on Monday of the bid to lease Sugar Loaf mountain from Kate Wickstrom for cross-country skiing and ice climbing. Have a look.
This GlenArbor.com story was sponsored by Becky Thatcher Designs, combining the natural textures of stone, the colorful depths of faceted gems and the luster of pearls with silver, high karat gold and platinum.