2017-01-05 / Front Page

Lakeshore visitation tops ‘16 stories

By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff

SCOTT TUCKER, shown here speaking to a group on the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS), was named superintendent of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore this year. The Lakeshore — and the NPS — had banner years. SCOTT TUCKER, shown here speaking to a group on the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS), was named superintendent of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore this year. The Lakeshore — and the NPS — had banner years. #1 Lakeshore visitation

Visitors flocked in droves to Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore last year smashing all-time records well before the end of the calendar year.

That made park visitation our No. 1 story of 2016. “We’ve been discovered. We’ve been discovered and I think it’s going to continue,” said Sally Guzowski, director of the Leelanau Peninsula Chamber of Commerce.

Visitation figures from last month have yet to be tallied. Even so, from Jan. 1 through Nov. 30, some 1,675,163 visitors were counted at the national park — well above the 1,535,633 record for the entire year set in 2015.

TRIBAL CHAIRMAN Thurlow “Sam” McClellan and a change in leadership in the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians were among top stories for 2016 in Leelanau County. TRIBAL CHAIRMAN Thurlow “Sam” McClellan and a change in leadership in the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians were among top stories for 2016 in Leelanau County. “It’s not the record that surprises me, but the margin by which it beat previous records,” said Tom Ulrich, deputy superintendent at Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Park attendance has grown steadily since 2011 when Good Morning America dubbed Sleeping Bear the “Most Beautiful Place in America.”

Since then Sleeping Bear and the Grand Traverse region have be recognized as a top spot for its restaurants, beaches, vineyards and craft breweries, among others.

“There’s a new standard ... I don’t think we’ll ever go below 1.5 million visitors again,” Ulrich said.

The slogan for last year’s celebration of the National Park Service centennial was “find your park.” And it appears a lot of people did just that, awakening a sleeping bear.

New visitation records were set during nine of the 11 months of 2016. The only exceptions to this were November and April with 27,774 and 30,032 were recorded, respectively.

While the bulk of travelers make their way to Sleeping Bear during the summer months of June, July and August, local business leaders report major growth in the shoulder-season — months preceding and following those three months.

“Within our business, activity during the summer months has remained static,” said Paul Skinner, owner of Miser’s Hoard gifts and Antiques in Empire and president of the Empire Chamber of Commerce. “Our sales per annum have increased 15 to 16 percent with the majority of our growth during the shoulder seasons.”

The year started out with record counts in January, February and March totaling 47,737, completely blowing away the tally for the same months of the previous record year of 2015. The same period that year totaled just over 30,000.

The shoulder season the other side of the three-month peak — September, October and November — saw records fall in two of the three months. In September, 159,394 visitors were recorded, besting the previous record set in September 2011 by more than 8,400. In October, a new record of 122,032 was set topping the previous record, set in 2015, by just over 2,800.

Why the increased visitation? Some point to the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, a 16-mile non-motorized path which runs from south of Manning Road in Empire Township to Bohemian Road in Cleveland Township.

The trail draws walkers, joggers and bicyclists during spring, summer and fall and snowshoers and cross-country skiers when weather permits.

“We had 75,000 people use the trail last year and I don’t see use falling in the future,” said Kerry Kelly, chairman of the Friends of Sleeping Bear. “Many people tell us they’re here because of the trail.”

Kelly’s group is working with the Park Service to establish hiking trails and a bike trail in Empire Township.

The Friends group has just received a grant to explore how to improve access to beaches and trails for the disabled within the Park.

“There’s a portion of the population that is getting older and can’t do the things they used to be able to,” Kelly said. “We want to make it easier for them to access what the park has to offer.”

The next question is how long the 2016 attendance record will stand.

# 2 SugarLoaf climbs back into list

In 2015, the sad saga of Sugar Loaf Resort didn’t even make it onto the list of top 10 stories in the Enterprise after being on or near the top of the list through many of the previous years.

It is No. 2 on the list this year.

The long-shuttered and now-blighted ski resort was finally sold in 2016 after having been closed since March 2000.

California real estate attorney Jeff Katofsky purchased the resort in November from a corporate entity controlled by a long-time owner of the resort, Remo Polselli.

Although a warranty deed on the property says a corporation controlled by Katofsky acquired the property for $3 million, Katofsky said he actually paid more than $6 million for the resort. He said it will take another $20 million to $50 million and several years of work to get the resort up and running again.

Katofsky has a $6 million mortgage on the resort through a corporation set up in Montana just weeks before he acquired the resort. Katofsky said his acquisition of Sugar Loaf and two other downstate Michigan properties were part of a legal settlement with Polselli in connection with properties Polselli owned in other states.

As for the inclusion of the sale of Sugar Loaf Resort on this year’s “top 10” list of stories in the Leelanau Enterprise, Katofsky said it might make more sense to include the resort on the list sometime in the future.

“This would be more appropriate for your list once plans are complete and construction begins in 2019,” Katofsky told the Enterprise this week. “Until then, there is virtually nothing to report.”

Leelanau County Administrator Chet Janik said he joined the head of the Leelanau County Construction Code Authority, Steve Haugen, in meeting with Katofsky during his brief visit to the county on Dec. 14. Janik said Katofsky stopped by the Government Center in connection with his first-ever visit to Sugar Loaf after buying it sight-unseen in November.

“I think Mr. Katofsky realizes what a challenge he is facing and what will need to be done in the short term to bring Sugar Loaf into compliance with the Construction Code,” Janik said.

Before plans for the resort are finalized and redevelopment begins, derelict structures on the property will need to be boarded up in compliance with strict Construction Code requirements.

“I found Mr. Katofsky to be quite humble and realistic about what it will take to get Sugar Loaf going again,” Janik said. “I especially like the fact that he did not make any promises.”

— by Eric Carlson

# 3 Political friction in election year

The friction between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump may have dominated the national news over the past several months, but the story came in No. 3 on the Enterprise’s top 10 stories of the year.

It’s no surprise that the Republican won that race in Leelanau County — though not in all townships — but Democrats were sure this was the election when they would prevail statewide and nationally.

“I was clearly surprised,” said Betty Bushey, who is active in the Democratic party. “We really did have information coming from national and state sources that polls indicated Hillary Clinton was going to win. When that didn’t happen we were taken quite by surprise and extremely disappointed.”

Locally, Democrats lost a seat on the County Board of Commissioners when incumbent Peachy Rentenbach was defeated by newcomer Casey Noonan, a Republican as well as the bearer of one of the most well-known names in the county.

Incumbent GOP Treasurer John A. Gallagher III survived a challenge by Dem. Jennifer Zywicki, the county’s chief staff accountant.

And while Leelanau Township Supervisor Doug Scripps, a Democrat, kept his seat, his son Dan Scripps, also a Dem. and Leelanau Township resident, lost his bid for the 101st State House seat to Curt VanderWall.

Charlie Godbout, of Empire Township, was also surprised by election results. He said he was especially surprised by how badly District 7 Commission candidate John O’Neill lost to long-time GOP incumbent Melinda Lautner. That vote was 1,030 to 882.

“My interpretation was that there was going to be down-ballot drop off on the Republican side, which didn’t occur,” Godbout said. “We thought Republicans were going to stay home because they couldn’t vote for Donald Trump.”

Keith Ashley of Leland Township is an independent who said he voted for neither of the top two presidential candidates and so won’t be taking any blame for anything that goes on over the next four years.

But Keith believes partisanship has no place in local elections at the county and township level. He says all candidates should run with no party affiliation.

“Trying to do the best job for local citizens is the best thing,” Ashley said. “I’d really like to see partisanship out of the local elections.”

— by Patti Brandt Burgess

# 4 Home sales in Leelanau County went through roof.

Some time about the third week in October, the year-long marks for number of homes sold and monetary volume of sales in the county were surpassed, according to figures provided by the Traverse Area Association of Realtors.

Through November, the value of home sales in the county hit $162.8 million — about 13 percent higher than the previous year-long mark of $$144.6 million set in 2014. County builders are also reporting banner years with some contracting to build homes one, two or even three years in advance. The housing crash of 2008 suddenly seems like a long time ago.

# 5 Rare bank robbery shakes community.

Empire seems an unlikely place to host a rarity in Leelanau County history, a bank robbery, unless you go back to its days as a lumber and sea-faring town.

But, indeed, that’s what occurred as thousands of dollars were taken by a masked gunman. Prosecutors have filed charges against William F. Minore of Benzonia, although neither the money nor the gun used in the robbery have been found.

# 6 Jaquan J. White

Jaquan J. White, a 25-year-old Fife Lake man, was shot in the head on Jan;. 11 in the bedroom of what deputies allege was a drug house being operated in Suttons Bay. The accidental shooting apparently occurred while two children were playing a game with White that involved an AK-47. Consequently, the children’s mother, Jennifer L. Bartlett of 333 W. First St., pleaded guilty to drug charges and attempted perjury. Meanwhile, members of the community were shocked at the shooting.

#7 Recreation center, pool sought in S-B

Suttons Bay Public School has unveiled an ambitious plan to build a community recreation center at the site of the now-vacant middle school, and is seeking approval from voters to take out $14.2 million bond. The Traverse City YMCA originally partnered with the school district in a study to determine the feasibility of such a center, but withdrew participation when the study showed the community was not large enough to support it.

# 8 More county building problems

Contractors working on a $1 million “upgrade” to the county Law Enforcement Center (LEC) recovered some potentially life-threatening problems in the building. The upgrade was required to fix long-standing problems in heating and air conditioning systems, and follows major work needed in the insulation system at the County Government Center. The LEC was opened in 2005; the Government Center building in 2008.

# 9 Leelanau shuffles school superintendents

Sander Scott, known for his ability on the basketball court at Northport and Central Michigan University, took over reigns at Glen Lake Community Schools as the district moves beyond the Joan Groening years. Groening, who resigned abruptly in 2015 just as an audit was to be released, is suing the school district in federal court. Meanwhile, the Northport School Board of Education — in an unusual if not controversial decision — hired Neal Wetherbee, son of the School Board president, as its superintendent. President Tom Wetherbee abstained from voting; the initial vote was 3-2.

# 10 Change in GTB leadership

Members of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians have elected a new leader in Thurlow Samuel McClellan, 66, who won over incumbent acting chairman Jo Anne Cook. And another newcomer to Tribal politics, Kimberly Maureen Vargo, was the top vote getter with 14.5 percent of the vote in an eight-way race for four seats on the Tribal Council. It’s yet to be fully determined what effect the changes in leadership will have on a major hotel, casino and marina project planned for Peshawbestown.

The Top Ten stories for Leelanau County in 2015:

1. Wind shear storm cripples county.

2. Derek Bailey charged with criminal sexual conduct.

3. Glen Lake superintendent Joan Groening.

4. Sleeping Bear brakes attendance mark.

5. Crazy weather, with winter setting marks followed by mild temperatures.

6. Makeover for emergency services, including Cedar Fire.

7. Record homes sales.

8. Affordable housing issue gains traction.

9. County grape, cherry crops hurt by weather.

10. Emergence of Leelanau Christian Neighbors.

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