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When Matthies said he could tell Sugar Loaf would go bonkers back in the 70’s, of course he meant “bonkers” in the good way. But “bonkers” can also mean in a not-so-good way. And that’s the kind of bonkers that describes things at Sugar Loaf from the late 90’s till now. During the 90’s the Sills group added a second golf course, designed by Arnold Palmer’s group, but still the resort struggled.
In 1997, Empire Bank took the resort back, but Sills’s group retained ownership of the golf courses and wastewater treatment plant. Many people in the community believe that splitting the golf courses from the ski resort created a fatal flaw for the property because it eliminated summer revenue.
Hotelier Remo Polselli, from Southfield, took over the ski resort in 1997. He spruced up the lodge inside and out and seemed serious about making a go of it, but due to accounting irregularities in Polselli’s books, the state refused to transfer the resort’s liquor license to him. “You can’t run a ski resort without a liquor license,” Matthies says. The resort closed in March 2000.
One of the saga’s kookier moments came in November 2000, when, despite the resort’s lack of running water a dad, mom (pregnant), their seven children and the dad’s parents moved into the shuttered resort. They told Eric Carlson, a reporter at the Leelanau Enterprise who has most closely followed the Sugar Loaf story, that they represented a religious-based organization that purportedly intended to purchase the resort and turn it into a family camp that taught character building. But the deal never happened, and the health department kicked the family out after a few weeks.
An especially low point: in 2003, Polselli pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion charges related to a different hotel and spent two years in prison.
Hopes rose in 2005 when Kate Wickstrom, a Leelanau County high school grad and operator of a Battle Creek Narconon addiction treatment center purchased the resort for $5.7 million. Wickstrom held a public celebration one bright April Saturday afternoon at Sugarfoot Saloon, near the resort, and locals filled it to standing room only.
She told the crowd that she hoped the restaurant would be open in August and that ski runs might open for the 06-07 season. Within days a construction Dumpster showed up in the resort parking lot and locals excitedly waited for
renovation to launch. But an odd silence prevailed. Wickstrom was seen picking weeds from a fl owerbed, but otherwise, no crews appeared. The Dumpster was carted away. Eventually Wickstrom did produce a plan for the resort and replaced some windows in the hotel, but major renovation never happened. [Kate Wickstrom did not return calls for this story.]
As the first decade of the resort’s closure unfolded, various suitors appeared, and rumors of pending deals floated time and again, but they never closed. Speculation also ran high when it was disclosed that Remo Polselli’s wife was listed as the sole owner of the bank that held Wickstrom’s mortgage.
The tale reached a certain dramatic peak just this past spring when a 39-year-old Las Vegas hotel entrepreneur, Eneliko “Liko” Sean Smith arrived on the scene. He said he’d have the restaurant open for summer and people skiing again. But as the weeks passed, it became apparent he lacked the financial wherewithal to resurrect the resort.
He began soliciting donations online—people questioned the legality of soliciting donations for a for-profit venture. It was then revealed that Smith had connections to Remo Polselli, a relationship he had previously denied. Smith held an event at Red Ginger, in downtown Traverse City, where people could pay $100 to hear his plan, eat hors d’oeuvres and listen to his 19-year-old wife sing songs. Few people showed. By autumn, Smith had declared the deal dead and left town.