2018-01-25 / Front Page

For 2018, Sleeping Bear Inn still on hold

By Alan Campbell
Of The Enterprise staff

The historic Sleeping Bear Inn remains deep in slumber, with no alarm clock set and no projects scheduled that might awaken it.

What may be needed to kick-start a failed effort by the National Park Service to refurbish the inn for visitors is funding, and none was allocated in the 2018 budget.

“The park wants a successful business function there,” said Tom Ulrich, deputy director of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. “Someone who can bring it up to a functional level and continue that.”

But a lack of money — both on the part of the only two applicants and the National Park Service — has stalled progress.

The two bids were reviewed by a panel of NPS bureaucrats from the Omaha office, which determined that they lacked the financial backing to be successful.

Park Service officials then theorized that the estimated $1.3 million needed to renovate the 5,000 square foot building would scare off financial institutions because the building itself, when restored to its historical design, would only offer 12 rooms for rent.

Located at the end of M-209 in Glen Haven, Sleeping Bear Inn was built by by D.H. Day to provide rooms for lumber tradesmen as well as dock hands and lumberjacks. The nicer rooms were in the front of the building, providing sweep- ing views of Lake Michigan.

One way to move along the process would be for the federal government to pay for some of the work, especially for infrastructure. The building has no usable wiring or plumbing.

But there’s been no project planned other than to paint and make minor repairs to the exterior in 2019.

“The (National Park Service) panel rejected (both bids), so something has to change before we can go out and request proposals again,” Ulrich said “The thing we can do as a park, which is not going to happen instantaneously, is to put some money into Sleeping Bear Inn and reduce the capital investment portion of the bid.”

He was not directly involved to ensure impartiality in the process.

“They purposely keep the superintendents of parks at arm’s length of applicants. My understanding is that there was some concern about the long-term capability to all that was needed. What that leaves us as the Park Service is needing to do some sort of work to make the offer work, or the applicants need to make a different offer,” Ulrich said.

The general public, including journalists, are also kept in the dark about the proposals. A federal Freedom of Information Act request made by the Leelanau Enterprise came back heavily redacted.

In fact, more than proprietary financial information was withheld in the release — the names of the applicants were blacked out as well.

However, both individuals contacted the Enterprise shortly after their proposals were rejected.

“We were going to restore it as a bed and breakfast,” said Loretta Young, who with her husband Michael Cole own Creekside Grains, a wholesale food business in Traverse City. “The front sign at the inn says it’s famous for their pancakes, and one of the first mixes we ever made was pancake mix ... we would continue that tradition.”

Their plan was to restore the inn into four regular rooms and one that would be handicapped accessible. Smaller rooms would be converted to bathrooms.

“The dining room is not that big. If it worked and there was room, we could have a breakfast menu,” Cole said.

She said an investment of about $1.6 million was needed to turn the Sleeping Bear inn into a viable business.

But there might be another option, Cole added — creating a nonprofit to help pay to renovate the Inn.

“That’s the only way you can get grants, and people will donate if they think they can get a tax deduction,” she said.

Young talked to the Enterprise on the record, while the second bidder asked that her name be withheld.

That bidder, too, suggested that a nonprofit could be formed to raise funds to renovate the physical aspects of the Sleeping Bear Inn.

“I think a 501 3 (c) should be established for the preservation of the building,” she said. “I had it as a bi-fold thing. My plan is very, very public friendly.”

The unnamed bidder said she had worked closely with NPS officials in establishing her proposal.

“The Park Service and myself are on the same page. We’re cohesive on it and have worked on it a long time. We both believe that (the Sleeping Bear Inn) would be a crown jewel in the Park Service,” she said.

Ulrich was disappointed that a lease never materialized with a partner in the private sector.

“Both applicants had passion. I don’t know how far off the mark those applicants were. Both had physical resources and could have gotten a start on the work. I don’t know if the panel was concerned that they didn’t have cash in hand for everything that was needed,” he said.

Despite the inn’s continued slumber, Ulrich is holding onto hope.

“We are committed to getting the inn open as an inn, because that is the best way to preserve it and to preserve its history.”

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