One on one with Kate Wickstrom, the new owner of Sugar Loaf

LEELANAU CO. – On March 25, Kate Wickstrom of Old Mission Peninsula and Battle Creek became the new owner of Sugar Loaf Resort. As I sat across from Kate at the Cottage Cafe to discuss her plans for the headline-making piece of Leelanau County real estate, I was struck by her confidence and engaging manner.

Still Executive Director of Stone Hawk, a substance abuse rehab center in Battle Creek, Kate explained why she's taken on the added pressure of transforming a sadly-neglected resort into a vibrant and successful business.

Q: What made you decide to purchase Sugar Loaf?

A: I have always loved Leelanau County and was deeply saddened by its closing and the impact it had on the communities. Sugar Loaf is in the heart of anyone who has worked there, visited there, skied there, or lived there. I do not know all the reasons the resort closed down, and at this point it really doesn't matter because that is the past.

Q: What are your plans for the resort?

A: My plans are to see it become an all seasons resort, year-round activities and events that everyone can experience and enjoy. Sugar Loaf cannot be anything but that.

Q: Will you keep the Sugar Loaf name?

A: I have had several people approach me regarding the name and have even offered some new names. The name Sugar Loaf is what everyone knows it by and has known it for many generations. It is known throughout the state and the mid-west. Change the name, why?

Q: You mentioned that you still have family in the Leelanau area. Will they play any role in Sugar Loaf?

A: My family is the most important thing to me and they have a strong love for the county, as well. My father is my mentor and I value his opinions. My father and my brothers all support what I am doing and play an active role in advising me and being a part of the resurrection of Sugar Loaf.

Q: You moved to Leelanau Co. at age 10 and went to Glen Lake and Leland High Schools in the 1970s. What is your educational and professional background since then?

My education is in business and I just happened to fall into the health care field, as I started out my career. I lived in Maine, worked for the diocese there in the social justice program and also worked part time in the school system, working with emotional disturbed children.

When I moved back to Michigan I transferred to the diocese here, community and family services here in Traverse City. Their primary focus was on substance abuse in an out patient setting. I worked there for six years and then went to work at the Williamsburg Recovery Center. I'm certified by the state in addiction counseling.

Although my career has primarily been in the medical/substance abuse field, I have enjoyed the experience of special finance and retail marketing.

Q: Is there a special meaning behind the name of Stone Hawk, your rehab center in Battle Creek?

A: The name "Narconon" comes from the Greek words meaning "no drugs." Stone Hawk was taken from different meanings in my native American culture. The Stone is used in part to identify a person's clan (i.e. Deer clan, bear clan, thunder clan, etc.) I am of the turtle clan being Wyandot – Band of Anderdon.

The Hawk represents re-birth, healing and spirituality. In the world of rehabilitation, I took the two to represent the Stone to identify which clan these former addicts belonged to and that being the Clan Of Drug Free People and the Hawk to represent their re-birth, their healing and freeing their spirit from the suppression of drugs and alcohol.

Q: Can you explain the philosophy of your rehab center?

A: The philosophy of our rehab is really pretty simple. We are an alternative program (long term) and offer people a different way at looking at themselves and their addiction. Rehabilitation, if defined in the Webster's dictionary, means to restore something to its original state. That is what we do. Everyone that comes into our program is basically a good person, having had morals, ethics and values. You take away the drugs and alcohol, and you have restored them back to who they were prior to their addiction. It is the drugs and alcohol that make people do things they ordinarily would not do.

The philosophy is that addiction is a learned behavior. We learn to handle our pain, either physical or emotional, through the use of drugs or alcohol. We teach people that they have control, that they are not powerless over their addiction. We teach them how to communicate and to confront. When a person completes the program, they are no longer an addict. If you are no longer drinking, why label yourself an alcoholic for the rest of your life?

Q: You announced your intention to purchase Sugar Loaf on Dec. 10. How long had you been in negotiations?

A: I announced in December my intentions of purchasing Sugar Loaf and got on the Leelanau forum to get input from people on the wants and needs in the area. I received over 300 e-mails, it was very helpful in identifying interests of all ages.

Q: What is your assessment of the condition of the facilities?

A: Having been closed for almost 4 years, the facility, of course, is run down in some areas, and is in desperate need of a new roof. There's walls that have to come down, walls that have to go up. I'm working with an architect. There is a lot of work and once the power is turned on we will have a better idea of what works and what doesn't. The lodge is solid and the work that needs to be done is being looked at as a labor of love. We are not being naive about it, but are not afraid of hard work either.

Q: What is the progress of the work on the resort and is the estimation of the opening of some of the facilities still on schedule for mid-summer?

A: We have phones hooked up and the power is expected to be on this week. We're going to be doing it in phases. The first phase is to just get life out there again, get the core of the lodge open by August for dining, entertainment, and some of the shops open.

By fall, we're looking at by September, having some of the rooms available. Until we get the power and water going through, it's hard to tell where the damage is. We know it's primarily to one wing. The old wing, its north. There's quite a bit of damage there and that's where we're looking at doing condo conversions.

The south wing has the majority of the rooms, there's probably about 50 to 60 rooms we could open immediately. We're starting with that phase and then come fall when the weather cools off, we're looking at opening up a fitness area, massage therapy, indoor tennis, the pool, things people can do in the fall and winter while we're still working on the ski hill and getting all of that going.

Q: Closed since 2000, how extensive will the upgrades and renovation to the ski equipment and resort facilities have to be in order to open the skiing area?

A: The ski lifts, as everyone knows, are going to take time and we do not anticipate opening this winter, although things may change with a stroke of luck. Until we get in there and see what we really have or don't have, it is hard to tell. I would rather say next winter for skiing and surprise people, than to say this year and not see it happen.

Q: Have you contacted any experts in the operation of skiing and resorts yet?

A: I have been in contact with a couple of different groups. I don't think at this point I want to give any names in the event they don't want to do it. Most definitely, I am looking at someone to run the ski operation.

Q: Other resorts in northern Michigan are heavily involved in real estate development. Do you have such plans?

A: Plans are to develop the area, something affordable and nice. Making this an all-seasons resort, you have to look at everything. Having a small village of shops, etc., I think will be necessary to facilitate the needs of those staying there and will also open opportunities for entrepreneurs in the area.

Q: You mentioned returning the land back to the people. Can you elaborate on what you meant by that statement?

A: Returning the land back to the people is exactly what I am saying. The people of Leelanau Co. can play a major role in the success of this operation. Having them be a part of its development, its growth and its success is what it takes to keep this alive and thriving.

Q: You mentioned setting up the formation of a council. What do you hope to accomplish?

A: To continue getting the input of what is wanted and needed and seeking the expertise of those that know skiing, tennis, development, business, etc.

Q: What would you like the public to know?

A: Right now I think the public is looking at what's going to happen. There's not a lot of construction activity at the moment. We're pulling this all together, getting our crews together, getting all of our bids, so there will be visible activity shortly. BN