Alan Fooy remembers when he was a single college student in the 1980s jamming ski gear with a friend into a VW Karmann Ghia with no heat and heading Up North to hit the slopes at the now-long-dormant Sugar Loaf ski resort near Traverse City.
"One of the reasons we stopped there was we were coming from southwest Michigan and we were too impatient to go all the way to Boyne," Fooy, 53, now of Ferndale, recalled. "I loved the views — both from the car and on the hill. Now, I'd take my family back."
He just might be able to, if Jeff Katofsky has his way.
Winter travel in Michigan — with 2 million to 2.4 million ski visits annually — is a $4.9-billion business, according to the Michigan Snowsports Industries Association. It's a vibrant part of the state's economy — Michigan has the nation's second most ski resorts, second only to New York.
As the ski season approaches this year, Katofsky — a California attorney and developer in the midst of buying the old resort — has ambitious, although somewhat mysterious plans to renovate and revive the once-popular Leelanau County resort, shuttered in 2000 and closed since.
"We're buying it," Katofsky said last week in a Free Press telephone interview from California. "The seller has to pay some unpaid taxes and then we will close. We plan redevelop it and open it as a year-round resort. It will be high-end. It's going to take some time. It's going to take a lot of time."
If all goes well, he said, the resort could reopen in three to four years and become one of Michigan's premier ski resorts.
Mired in controversy
Sugar Loaf is in a key location, in the small town of Cedar close to Traverse City. But it has been shut down for 16 years.
Katofsky, who has never visited the property, said even he doesn't know what it will take to successfully reopen the ski lodge, hotel and chair lifts.
"I don't have numbers yet," he said. "We're not deep enough into this to know."
It's understandable that he might not know the extent of what he's getting into. Sugar Loaf's history over the past few years has been mired in legal entanglements and numerous rumors and announcements that someone is buying the place and restoring it to its former glory.
An artist's rendering, published in 1945, referred to the potential development along M-22 as the Sugar Loaf Winter Sports Development, according to a blog, Michigan Lost Ski Areas Project. In 1947, it opened. As it grew, the resort became an important part of Leelanau County.
In the 1950s, the ski hill was listed in guides among top ski areas. In the '60s, a hotel, golf course — and even an airstrip — were added. But by the '80s, the resort began to struggle. In the late '90s, Remo Polselli purchased the resort. It finally closed in 2000.
Since then, it has gone through a series of legal issues, with local residents hearing — nearly annually, they say — that the resort will reopen under new management.
"Every year around this time, somebody says something is going to happen, and it doesn't," said Andrew Pleva, 23, who grew up in Cedar, a town so small it only has one stoplight. Pleva now owns the local meat shop in town with his father. "It would be great if it did. Itwas once the No. 1 employer in the county. But nobody's holding their breath."
Katofsky — who also owns an minor league baseball team, the Orem Owlz in Utah — is aware of local skepticism. That's why he's offering only vague answers, he said to questions about what he plans to do with Sugar Loaf, which he plans to own under an entity aptly named Sweet Bread.
How much are you paying to purchase the resort?
"I'm not disclosing that information."
How much did you plan to invest in the resort?
"A big, eight-digit number."
What is your plan for the resort?
"I'm going to keep it to myself for now."
Katofsky said Sugar Loaf — along with hotels in Romulus and St. Clair — is part of a complex legal settlement deal with Polselli, the owner who took it over in the late 1990s. He compared the Sugar Loaf development project — which he said has taken longer to close than he expected — to giving birth to a child.
"You never tell people what you are going to name the baby before it comes out, that way people can't complain about it," he said. "If I tell you guys what my plans are now and I can't do them, then it looks like I'm breaking a promise. Or people don't like what I'm going to do, then I have to deal with that."
Location, location, location
Katofsky said he aims to create a place that appeals to nostalgic Michiganders, like Fooy, who are seeking a family weekend getaway in the winter and summer, as well as guests from across the Midwest who will travel there and spend more time, he said.
"I looked at it, and saw a few things," he said of the Sugar Loaf investment. "The first rule of real estate is location. The second rule of real estate is location. The third rule of real estate is location. This met all three rules."
The resort, he added, has a "tremendous history," and the Michigan economy, in his view, is now on the rise after hitting bottom just a few years ago.
Michael Berry, the president of the National Ski Areas Association in Lakewood, Colo, pointed out that Sugar Loaf has potential.
Michigan, he said, is full of skiers and snowboarders, many who might remember Sugar Loaf. The resort is less than 20 miles from Traverse City, which in the past few years has seen increased development and become a national tourist destination. The local business community is supportive of efforts to re-open the resort.
The resort is also close to Lake Michigan, which provides beautiful scenery and lake-effect snow.
"Michigan," he said, "is a force in the ski industry."
At the same time, Berry added, one of the challenges Sugar Loaf faces is that it has been sitting empty for a long time. The lodge, hotel, and lift equipment likely will require investment and technology upgrades.
"It will take a major effort to rebuild it, refurbish it," he said.
When it comes to skiing, one of the benefits Michigan has is cold weather and rolling hills, said Mickey MacWilliams, executive director of the Michigan Snow Sports Industries Association; and unlike golf, which is struggling to attract younger golfers, interest in skiing has remained steady.
For most Michiganders, the snow sports season starts in early December and runs until the snow melts.
"People here are used to the could and embrace it," MacWilliams said.
In fact, she pointed out, there even was a time when Michigan had the phrase "Winter Wonderland" stamped on its license plates.
Still, she added, skiing is not an easy business because it can't thrive if the weather is too warm — or too cold.
MacWilliams said she has fond memories of Sugar Loaf, where she worked for about two years in early '80s. The resort, she said, had steep and long runs with stunning views of the area. It used to provide hundreds of jobs and income to the local economy, she added.
"It is unfortunate it has sat vacant for so long," she said. "It was a really cool place."
Trey Brice, whose family snowboards and skis together every winter, said he'd be interested in trying Sugar Loaf, if it re-opened.
He and his wife skied together while they were attending law school in Vermont, and later, when they lived in Colorado, they tackled bigger hills. When they moved to Huntington Woods, they encouraged their three young boys — now 15, 13, and 11 — to learn to ski.
Brice, 47, said he has never been to Sugar Loaf, but if it re-opened, the resort would offer them different experience from Boyne or Crystal Mountain, and the proximity to Traverse City — where there are other things to do and see — would add to the appeal.
Snow sports, he said, are a part of their family's activities because they are fun, face-paced, and something they can all do together.
And, he added, there's one more reason that every Michigander can relate to: "We get a lot of winter."