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Frontenac, resort town in the making

The Villa Maria, once a girls school, is now scheduled to become a resort and event venue. Rachel Fergus / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 2
The Villa Maria, once owned and operated by the Ursuline Sisters, may soon become a hotel resort. Kyle Stevens / Rivertown Multimedia2 / 2

The Villa Maria, an all-girls school turned retreat and conference center, will soon have a new function: a resort hotel.

The Goodhue County Board and Florence Township have voted to change zoning ordinances and give Village Maria Ventures, led by John Rupp, the "OK" to refurbish the building and build other structures on the property.

The Villa Maria, which looks like a castle near Lake Pepin, sits on 63 acres of land and is less than a mile from historic Old Frontenac. The current building will be remodeled to be a resort hotel, according to the project summary presented to the Goodhue County Board on Tuesday, Oct. 2. The dorm rooms will be converted into larger hotel rooms and the unfinished fourth floor will be used for more rooms. There will be about 40 units in total.

"I'm very, very excited about the potential. I'm also very interested in it ... it has been an incredible piece of real estate historically, and physically and spiritually, so I think all those things are in play," Commissioner Paul Drotos said.

Other changes will be made throughout the building. For example, the library will be converted into a lounge, the chapel will become a great room and, perhaps ironically, the sanctuary will be converted into a bar and restaurant.

The renovations and building will be done in two phases. The first phase, as laid-out in the proposal submitted to the county, will consist of:

• the four-story dormitory renovations

• "Glendgarda Cottage" will be remodeled and become a short-term rental unit "bride's cottage" for wedding events

• two other cottages will both be modernized and made into suites,

• 10,000 square feet will be added to Ursuline Hall, which will be used for weddings and social gatherings, and

• a barn, hall and field have been proposed to be used as a venues for "country-style" events.

The second phase is planned to include a stage for a "front yard" summer music festival, a spa hotel, a possible hotel expansion and about 10 cabins. Phase two does not yet have a designated date to begin construction.

The Villa Maria will operate year-round, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Rupp explained that to be a hotel, operating around the clock is necessary. The proposal estimated that to run the Villa Maria about 80 employees, a combination of full and part-time, will be needed.

The amount of traffic in the area is expected to increase, especially after phase two is completed.

However, according to the proposal, on-street parking will be prohibited. Guests of the hotel and other venues will have room to park and turn around on the property.

Though the County Board approved the project, Rupp will need to apply for permitting before expanding, building or hosting a large event that was not included in the recent proposal. Currently, the Villa Maria would need to apply for a permit for an event that hosts more than 500 people. However, as it was discussed at the meeting, a large wedding can exceed 500 people. Since a large part of Rupp's plan for the Villa Maria is to host weddings, commissioners agreed that it would not make sense for the organization to submit a request for a permit to host a wedding with more than 500 guests. The headcount threshold that requires a permit will thus likely be increased.

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