Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

September 2, 2010

Another effort falls short to revive Sugar Loaf Resort

Now that Eneliko "Sean" Smith has officially joined the long line of would-be saviors of the Sugar Loaf resort, it's time — again — for its Leelanau County neighbors to hope someone can figure out a way to resurrect the iconic resort. It's also time — again — to learn from the latest experience.

Smith blew into town in the spring with big plans; he was going to buy Sugar Loaf and restore it to its past glory; he planned to have 100 rooms in the resort's hotel open by July 4 and have ski lifts operating by December. He was in "talks" with a host of parties and had plans upon plans.

It didn't take long for skeptics to begin asking tough questions, particularly once it was discovered Smith was facing a felony grand theft charge in California over nonpayment of taxes.

By early April resort owner Kate Wickstrom voiced optimism about Smith's plans and said the community needed to "embrace" him and support his efforts. But their relationship soon soured and disintegrated to distrust and name-calling. In the end, she called him a "joke."

Later that month Smith pleaded no contest to the California felony grand theft charge; the plea deal will result in a misdemeanor conviction with restitution and probation. Smith said he planned to teach boxing in Traverse City for his community service.

In August, he said on his website that the U.S. Tennis Association was interested in the resort's indoor tennis facility, a firm was looking at leasing the ski hills, and two hotel brands were interested in the hotel. He wrote about unidentified project "partners" from Indianapolis, a Chicago businessman who was looking to renovate one of the resort's bars and plans for an interactive gaming lounge in another.

But within days, and just over three months after arriving on the scene, Smith said he was "officially bowing out" of any deal.

While Sugar Loaf apparently is back to square one, that doesn't mean there isn't a future. Serious business people have expressed interest in the past, and local and state governments seem eager to help push things along.

Some have suggested that it make take a Traverse City Commons approach — one step at a time, as has happened at the sprawling former state hospital here — to make Sugar Loaf work. And the potential remains: a ski hill, a couple nearby golf courses, condos, a hotel, a private airstrip and a great location.

Every year and every suitor that goes by makes it all the harder. But it was never going to be easy.

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