Leelanau News and Events

Shuttered Sleeping Bear Inn Opens To Public Prior To Rehab

By Ross Boissoneau | April 6, 2022

For more than 50 years, the Sleeping Bear Inn has stood silent in Glen Haven.

That’s about to change. Visitors will be able to tour the long-shuttered inn prior to a groundbreaking for the rehabilitation of the inn and garage April 8 and again the next day. The year-long renovation will enable the inn to welcome visitors by next spring or summer, according to future innkeeper Maggie Kato. 

“We think our biggest challenge is that we’ll have to turn folks away,” says Kato, the executive director of the non-profit BEAR – Balancing Environment and Rehabilitation – formed in 2018 to rehab and reopen the inn. The organization was issued a 40-year lease for the inn by the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

It’s the first project for the nonprofit, part of its overarching mission to ensure Glen Haven’s history and heritage are sustained through the rehabilitation of its historic structures.

Kato and her husband Jeff retired from their longtime jobs with Habitat for Humanity of Genesee County to move north and oversee the renovation before transitioning into innkeepers. During Maggie’s tenure as executive director of Genesee County’ Habitat, the organization completed close to 500 home builds and owner-occupied repair projects. She built the organization from an annual operating budget of $500,000 in 2005 to $6,500,000 upon her retirement. Jeff has extensive restaurant management experience gained prior to his 14 years as operations director for Genesee County Habitat for Humanity.

Now the two will work side by side once again. They were considering what to do following their retirement. Though they had no intention of becoming innkeepers, their interest had been piqued when vacationing and seeing the empty building. “We saw it and researched it for an opportunity to take our parents,” says Kato. Then they saw an article saying “You could be the innkeepers,” and decided to pursue it.

They spoke with then-chief ranger Phil Akers and learned that though they were too late to submit a bid, the park would open the Expression of Interest again later. The next year when visiting, they had an opportunity to tour the building with Akers. They also met with Superintendent Scott Tucker, where they lay out their vision of not only rehabbing the inn but using it as an economic driver to do the same for the rest of Glen Haven. That led to the formation of the nonprofit, with support from many community members.

One of those supporters is Kerry Kelly, a longtime park volunteer and member of Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes. Now a member of the board of directors at BEAR, he says he believes the project will lead to improvements throughout the village on the shore of Lake Michigan. “We’re excited about the vision,” he says, including not only the Sleeping Bear Inn but rehabilitation of other buildings, including the general store, cannery building and blacksmith facility, where he himself has worked. He sees such restoration projects leading to what he calls “Greenfield Village light.”

Originally built between 1865 and 1867, the inn served as a frontier hotel for business travelers and local workers. It continued in operation throughout the next century evolving into a tourist hotel before closing in the early 1970s. Today the 13-acre Glen Haven Village Historic District is all a part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Kato says the cost of the inn rehabilitation project is just under $2 million. “Jeff and I sold our house and put in the first financing, with the rest coming from a loan from Oxford Bank through the USDA,” she says. “We are trying to buy down the loan as much as possible with philanthropic gifts.”

George MacEachern will serve as construction general for the project. He worked alongside the Katos as construction supervisor for Habitat, as well as 23 years coordinating the rehabilitation of low- to moderate-income single-family homes for the Genesee Metropolitan Planning Commission.

“We are thrilled to see this project come to fruition,” says Tucker. “We have been working closely with the BEAR team and have full confidence in their abilities. The lease will preserve the two buildings and provide a wonderful visitor experience in the historic Glen Haven village.”

Kato says the inn will feature eight B&B rooms, each with its own bathroom. Eventually she hopes to open the dining room to the public as a restaurant. She and Jeff will live in a newly configured apartment above the garage.

The inn will operate year-round. She says the area already attracts people throughout the year, and being able to offer accommodations within the park will be enticing.

“It will be the oldest operating inn in the National Park Service,” Kato says. “That’s an exciting thing.”

Kelly too believes the inn will see visitors eager to experience the historic setting. Nearby attractions such as Lake Michigan, Glen Arbor, the dune climb and the peninsula’s wineries and breweries give those visiting the area plenty to do and see no matter the time of year. That’s particularly true for those who want to engage with the great outdoors. “The nice thing is the trail goes right past the inn,” he says.

An open house will take place on Friday, April 8, where visitors will be able to see the buildings before they undergo renovation. It will take place at 1pm following remarks from Tucker.

“We are thrilled to see this project come to fruition,” Tucker says. “We have been working closely with the BEAR team and have full confidence in their abilities. The lease will preserve the two buildings and provide a wonderful visitor experience in the historic Glen Haven village.”

BEAR will also host an open house April 9 from 10-2, though there will be no SLBE rangers or staff available that day.

L: Original Sleeping Bear Inn, courtesy Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes, image from the Empire Area Heritage Group from the Empire Area Museum Complex. The inn was originally named the Sleeping Bear House, built by Charles C. McCarty around 1857, when the logging town was called Sleeping Bearville. The Friends of Sleeping Bear have produced a book, Picture-Perfect Sleeping Bear, which chronicles the past 140 years of life around the park and how people treated the land, how they used it, nurtured it, and cherished it. 

R: Interior of the inn before restorations start, courtesy Maggie Kato.

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