Leelanau County Commissioner David Shiflett has been one of the area’s strongest advocates for getting Sugar Loaf Resort (located a half hour from Traverse City) back to being a vibrant piece of Northern Michigan. A couple of weeks ago, we told you about the online survey he started that allows people to vote and show support for a private-public solution. Here we check in with Shiflett to get a sense of his vision of Sugar Loaf’s possibilities.

Give us a flyover of where things stand at Sugar Loaf now.

The resort properties have fallen into divided ownership with divided interest. And unfortunately because of the economic downturn, mild winters, lack of cooperaton and adversarial business relationships, the resort floundered, fell dormant and continues to deteriorate. We have lost employment opportunities in that area in the last five years and htat has really hurt the Leelanau economy.

How do you see government helping solve that set of complex business issues?

The state of Michigan has enacted legislation for governing bodies to establish land bank authorities, brownfield authorities and economic development corporations that give private development an opportunity to succeed in what would normally be very difficult development scenarios. And this really needs to be a public private collaboration. Sugar Loaf is not a normal project. A lot of people will be resistant to this idea until they expand their thinking. Economically, we are faced with very interesting time and some real challenges. But from challenging times come great leaps forward.

Understanding that the real solution is pretty wide open at this point, what are some of the possibilities that you have considered?

The possibilities for Sugar Loaf can be broad and far reaching. As far as site planning, we need to think outside the box a little bit and look at what kind of economy are we moving toward, a knowledge-based economy. How do we attract that kind of employer and employee? Where do these people want to live and work and play? And I think we can be proactive in thinking about the larger picture, and we have wonderful opportunity to create a new community. Given how far the resort has fallen into disrepair—the other day I was there looking at it and a family of raccoons crawled out a window and walked across the roof—it will almost certainly have to be torn down, so this gives us an opportunity for a fresh start. So, what if Sugar Loaf still had skiing, but on a smaller scale, and we had new construction for housing and commercial so people could live and work right there.

The top of Sugar Loaf has ability to rebroadcast broadband wireless across Leelanau County and even Benzie County and possibly Charlevoix County. A system like that reduces the need for infrastructure, and utilizing a combination of wireless point to point and fiberoptic networks, we can develop robust broadband network with ability to attract knowledge based, internet based employers. Software architects or engineering firms, a lot of things can be done when you have a fast Internet pipeline. One of the things that could possibly be considered, if you start to look at the Michigan film industry tax credit and the tools that that brings, and tied with a robust broadband system, we could have a multi-media content and creation area, distribution center where that type of product is created and distributed across the state and around the world. The film industry tax credit makes good sense for companies looking to do that kind of work.

I’m not saying any of this is what it must be, but I am saying these are examples of how we have to think beyond the boundaries of how we’ve been approaching this in the past several years. And at this point I feel that a public-private partnership provides the best way forward.

Photo(s) by ioneq