Northern Michigan’s Sugar Loaf Mountain Back in the News

Back in 1970, Dan Matthies was working in Saginaw in the banking industry when he received an invitation to move to Sugar Loaf for the winter to teach downhill skiing at the resort started by Jim Ganter six years prior. “They wanted to create the best ski school in the state,” Matthies says. The hook was teaching a new French ski technique when other Michigan resorts were teaching an Austrian technique.

Matthies started December 22 and was supposed to go back to Saginaw in the spring, but he became enthralled with Leelanau County and never left. For one, he was surprised to see that a ski instructor could make good money because of all the people coming in attracted to that new French technique. Toss in free housing, free three meals a day, “40 percent off booze,” and clients picking up the tab quite often, and, well, Dan Matthies was living large on Sugar Loaf Mountain. He began selling real estate at the resort, “condos, A frames, because I could tell this place was going to go bonkers,” he says.

In the off-season, Matthies would also help with marketing, hitting the ski show circuit with the other instructors in the ski school. They’d wear matching outfits and line up next to the booth like a team.

“We were the hit of the show,” he says. “It took a lot of money, but that’s what you needed to do to keep the people coming to Leelanau County.” And the people did come. Back then, on weekends at the height in the mid-70’s, cars jammed the parking lot and spilled out onto the approach road, lining both sides for half a mile and more, and 3,500 skiers a day would ride the hills.

Matthies was so sure of Sugar Loaf, he opened a ski shop inside the main lodge. He made his money on Friday night when busloads of ski-club guys, fresh from drinking on the bus on the long trip north, would stop in to the shop on their way through the lodge. They’d look dreamily at a hot set of skis and say, “Someday I’ll be skiing on those.” Matthies stood ready with his pitch line: “I can have you on those boards for the first run of the morning.”

One year he won a ski retailer of the year award for selling the most equipment from the smallest space. “It was a gold mine,” he says wistfully.

But despite the resort’s popularity, in 1981, Sugar Loaf declared bankruptcy, an ending that Matthies chalks up to borrowing money at too high an interest rate when expanding Sugar Loaf’s hotel in the 70’s. An investor group from near Detroit led by attorney John Sills picked up the resort for $7.5 million, which included one golf course, the airstrip, the hotel, the ski hill, a wastewater treatment plant and nearly 1,600 acres total.

But Matthies felt the new owners didn’t understand ski resort marketing. And by the late 1990’s, “the people weren’t coming,” he says. On a day in 1998, Matthies backed up a Ryder truck to the lodge and emptied his shop.

Article Comments

  • farlane

    Well done Jeff! There’s a bunch of people talking about the Loaf over at Leelanau.com:
    http://www.leelanau.com/blog/turning-the-page-on-sugar-loaf/

  • Anonymous

    An airline executive once offered this advice on how to become a millionaire. "Take a billion dollars, start an airline and soon you will be a millionaire." So it goes with ski resorts, and with "Hope and Change" in full gear – there aren’t many people with enough money to touch this project. Another former ski resort property in Leelanau County, Timberlee, has struggled to find a business model that works for years. The difference of course is that the chair lifts at Timberlee were sold off presumably to help pay for the property acquisition. Sugarloaf still has chair lifts, but it has been so long since they have been run, they may be 100% inoperable. They surely don’t meet the minimum safety standards anymore. It was the revolving restuarant on the top of the Renaissance Center in Detroit that sat idle for seven years while the facility went through foreclosure and/or bankruptcy. When General Motors bought the building, they found the mechanical equipment to turn the platform no longer functioned and the $3,500,000 to restore it was just too expensive, even for the General. The odds are that it will be a long time before Sugarloaf is restored to its’ once grand presence, it at all. I hope I am wrong.

    Kayakman – Oldsmar, Florida

  • Anonymous

    Hey Jeff.

    Chris Grobbel here. I just was retained by the new owner of Sugarloaf (10/2/13) to work with the Leelanau County BRA to resolve any environmental issues, update local land use permits etc., and get things underway…at long last! Be in touch if you’d like to do a follow-up article. Chris Grobbel [email protected]. Thanks!

  • Joseph Snyder

    MSU should by it and run it as an extension of their hospitality college. Could most likely get federal and state grants . Students work their one or two semesters and pay tuition instead of getting a salary …. That should reduce costs. Other colleges could send interns as well…maybe include their sports medicine program and their agriculture areas for growing grapes and hops….maybe include their food science and ecologist programs.

    • Mark Hayward

      I managed to be a Ski Bum for three winters out West with out paying any Tuition ..

  • Tim Weiss

    Why not take the money the spent on oak island and spend it on Sugar Loaf!! Where we know the treasure is!

  • Tim Weiss

    This would be fun! at the loaf!! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMnaukMOJ34