Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 3, 2010

Entrepreneur plans to buy shuttered resort

BY ART BUKOWSKI

CEDAR -- Liko "Sean" Smith doesn't plan to dally.

The Las Vegas-based entrepreneur has big plans for Leelanau County's long-shuttered Sugar Loaf Resort, and he wants it open in a hurry. If all goes according to plans, he'll plunk down millions and have 100 rooms open at the resort's hotel by July 4.

"The key to this is speed and pragmatism," he said Friday.

The once-popular resort that covers several hundred acres in Cleveland and Centerville townships closed in 2000 amid a sea of financial troubles and back-to-back poor snow seasons. Multiple attempts to reopen never materialized.

Smith, 39, said he'd spend about $10 million to purchase the entire resort, an attached golf course and a supporting water treatment plant, parcels now owned by separate parties. He's been in contact with owners and hopes to finalize the purchase soon.

"All the contracts are being drafted; we expect to close by the end of the month," he said.

The Arnold Palmer-designed course at the resort recently was purchased by a group led by Homestead resort president Robert Kuras and reopened as Manitou Passage. It won't be included in the deal.

Smith discovered the resort in February. He was in Traverse City on a vacation with his wife when a business associate recommended he check out Sugar Loaf. He was "blown away" by the resort, he said, and grew more excited when he sensed the public's strong desire to see it reopened.

"I've never seen anything like it," he said.

Smith believes "too many players" have been involved in the operation's ownership. It will be successful if unified and operated by a single owner, he believes.

"Unless you do that, you're going to fail," he said. "I don't care who you are."

Kate Wickstrom, who owns Sugarloaf's ski and hotel portions, agrees. She hopes to seal a deal with Smith soon.

"Leelanau County has an opportunity to embrace this man because he is putting the whole thing back under one umbrella, where it needs to be," she said. "They need to support him in the process."

Smith plans to work with what's already at the resort, but could add condos, a wellness center and other attractions.

He's brought in consultants to make sure the existing structures are sound, and said they haven't noted significant problems.

"Not one time in the five tours that I've taken through that property has anyone ever stopped and said, 'Listen, chum, you can't do it, look at this,'" he said. "That hasn't happened once."

Smith expressed confidence about revamping and running the hotel and golf course, but admits he knows nothing about running a ski operation. He plans to seek help with that side of the operation, and hopes to have lifts open by December.

"I'm not a ski resort person. I need a partner," he said. "We need a partner that's going to come in that knows the ski resort business like the back of their hand. The Midwest ski resort business, not California, not Colorado."

Leelanau County Commissioner Melinda Lautner is thrilled to think the resort may reopen soon.

"I think it would just be absolutely phenomenal," she said. "It would be a great economic boon for Leelanau County."

But she's heard big talk from investors before, and she "hates to get excited" for nothing.

"I'm not holding my breath, but my fingers are crossed," she said.

Trudy Galla, Leelanau County's planning director, also is excited. The county has tried to attract interest in the property, and she believes Smith is the man to make something happen.

"When I first met him, I had a feeling that he might be the guy ... he had a lot of really good questions, and I just felt really confident that he had a genuine interest."

Galla said brownfield and other incentives might be available for Smith, though he contends he won't need such help to make his vision happen.

"I'm working with (Commissioner David Shiflett) very closely in selecting which program will make sense for what I'm trying to get done ... but it won't make or break the deal, nor will I allow it to hold up anything."

Record-Eagle reporter Bill O'Brien contributed to this report.

Liko Smith

Age: 39

Residence: Las Vegas (plans to move to Northport)

Background: Has owned, managed and developed various hotel and commercial properties across the country. Discovered Sugar Loaf on a recent vacation to Michigan.

For more info on his projects: www.likosmith.com