For better view, proceed to Sugar Loaf summit

Photo by Chet Janik

By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

Jeff Katofsky was upset after he walked through what was left of the lodge at Sugar Loaf, the long-shuttered ski resort in the heart of Leelanau County which he now owns.

Broken window glass covered the floor, beds were tipped over, chairs had been thrown through walls pocked with graffiti. It was clear to Katofsky that the fence he paid to build around the perimeter of the property and the dozens of “no trespassing” signs he erected had been ignored since his last visit a year ago.

It almost brought me to tears, it was that bad,” said Katofsky,” a realtor, hotel developer and minor league baseball team owner in southern California.

County Commissioner Patricia Soutas-Little, who joined Katofsky along with members of his development team and County Administrator Chet Janik to tour Sugar Loaf on the last weekend of October, says she could see the owner’s disappointment and frustration that someone would deface a beautiful structure. Katofsky had told her before that he valued the lobby of the lodge and thought it had great potential.

Katofsky decided to walk up to the summit, rather than drive, in order to calm himself down. He put on a brace to protect his right knee that he had blown out playing baseball. Janik joined him for the brisk walk uphill. The autumn colors were near their peak. The sun reached through the clouds. They could see Lime Lake and Little Traverse Lake below. Out on Lake Michigan, a freighter was passing by the Manitou Islands. Days like this are featured on “up north” postcards, or appear in Pure Michigan television commercials.

By the time they reached the mountaintop, Katofsky felt better about his prospects to revive Sugar Loaf, once the economic lifeblood and biggest employer in the county but which has been vacant since 2000. More than half of the idle red chairlifts have been removed. The others will also come down. None would pass a safety inspection today.

I took a deep breath up there. It was like walking into heaven,” he said

Soutas-Little immediately recognized the change in Katofsky.

He seemed to have come to terms with what had happened to the lodge,” she said. “Instead of focusing on the destruction, he commented that if he had to demolish the lodge he was free to envision the project from a different viewpoint. What was devastating now seemed to be liberating, in a sense, releasing him from the constraints of the existing structure.”

Katofsky’s conversation with the county officials turned back to one of optimistic potential. He hopes soon to finish redeveloping the St. Clair Inn near Detroit—one of three lucrative properties he won in a settlement from former Sugar Loaf owner Remo Polselli; the other was the Detroit Metropolitan Hotel near the airport in Romulus. Here in the heart of Leelanau County, he aspires to build a four- or five-star, all-season resort that would fly a Marriott or Hilton flag, feature wines harvested from grapes grown on the property, include a conference or convention center, and employ 250-350 local workers, with the potential for on-site or nearby workforce housing. Outdoor amenities could include hiking trails, bike trails … and many in Leelanau have their fingers crossed for skiing once again.

He hopes to return in late February or early March and unveil most of his plans for Sugar Loaf at a public forum, similar to the one he held in late October 2017.

If Sugar Loaf is revitalized, we could have a year-round economy once again. When it died, the economy tanked,” said Soutas-Little, who chairs the Leelanau Peninsula Economic Foundation, and credits working with Katofsky as once of the reasons she decided to run for County Commission again. The prospect of workforce housing and year-round local jobs also excite her.

Katofsky hopes a reopened Sugar Loaf could give the local economy a shot in the arm, just as the nearly renovated St. Clair Inn has created 350 jobs, albeit for a project smaller than Sugar Loaf.


Praise for St. Clair

A couple days after Katofsky’s visit to Leelanau County, Janik passed through St. Clair on his way to South Carolina. The county administrator was amazed by the progress he saw in the year since he last visited the St. Clair Inn.

In terms of its condition, it had looked like Sugar Loaf when I walked through it—dark and moldy,” said Janik. “No corners were cut. Everything (Katofsky) talked about it St. Clair, he has followed through on.”

That transparency is important to many in Leelanau County, following years of mystery and intrigue surrounding Sugar Loaf’s previous owner, convicted felon Polselli, and a revolving door of colorful suitors including Samoan boxer Liko Smith.

A year ago he said he’d start this process in the fall, and it’s starting,” Soutas-Little told WTCM’s Ron Jolly. “He has committed to come back in February or early March, once his plans are together, and holding another public forum. I really appreciate the way he is engaging with the community, looking at private partnerships and looking at revitalizing the year-round economy.”

I think transparency is really important,” said Katofsky. “I want to hear what people have to say. But I’m not going to say I’m going to do things that I won’t do. If I say I’m going to do six things, and in the end I only do five, all I’ll hear about is the thing I didn’t do.”

The powers that be in St. Clair also sing praise for Katofsky and the work he’s done to restore the St. Clair Inn to its former glory.

Every time I go on the site, I’m amazed by what they’re doing. They’re not cheap: they’re using quality materials,” said St. Clair mayor Bill Cedar. “You’re gonna like them.”

Jeff Bohm, chairperson of the St. Clair County Board of Commissioners, said he’s impressed by Katofsky’s ambition with the Inn project.

Theproject is three times larger than what I ever would have expected. He arguably had a bigger vision for that property than we did here locally. They’ve been going to town on this thing. This will be a premier destination on the east side of the state.”

Both said they found Katofsky to be down-to-earth, and they connected with him on a personal level—and over their mutual love for sports.


What about skiing?

One question lingers on the tongues of thousands in Leelanau County who learned to downhill ski on Sugar Loaf’s slopes before the chairlifts stopped running 18 years ago. Will a revitalized resort feature skiing?

Skiing is purely a financial question,” said Katofsky. “I have to take it seriously because I know it’s important to people. But I’m not doing this for charity. We’ll invest literally tens of millions of dollars in this. If skiing works financially, you’ll have it. If not, you won’t.”

The remaining chairlifts are garbage. The entire downhill skiing infrastructure at Sugar Loaf would have to be rebuilt from scratch. The specter of Climate Change and unpredictable winter weather force ski resorts to make much of their own snow.

The ski market in the region is in flux,” said Katofsky. “Some of those ski hills are doing well, some are not. Sugar would have to be an artificial ski hill because you’ve gotta make snow.”

On the positive side, Katofsky said that making snow has become easier and cheaper—aided in part by state-of-the-art snowmaking technology at nearby Boyne Mountain.

One advantage that we have (at Sugar Loaf) is the right kind of pond to make snowmaking feasible.”

Katofsky plans to tell the public much of his plans when he returns in late February or early March—perhaps 85 percent of his concept plan—once he vets them with local and township zoning officials. Then he hopes to implement building plans, and perhaps break ground in Spring 2020. A new Sugar Loaf resort could be open within three years.

I don’t know if I’ll have the skiing answer by this February or March. That might remain the major unknown.”