Goodhue County approves permit for Villa Maria renovation

October 5, 2018

The Goodhue County Board of Commissioners approved a change in zoning and CUP to allow renovations of the former Villa Maria Retreat and Conference Center in Frontenac.

RED WING — A historic property will get a new lease on life.

The Goodhue County Board of Commissioners Tuesday voted to rezone two parcels of property — 63 acres of land — near Frontenac from agricultural A2 to commercial recreational, then the board approved a conditional use permit, to pave the way for the renovation of the old Villa Maria property.

John Rupp, a real estate developer and restaurateur from St. Paul, purchased the property in March with plans of turning the 1891 Ursuline convent into a boutique resort with 40 luxury rooms complete with kitchenettes and whirlpool baths.

“This is a major piece of work,” Commissioner Paul Drotos said of the property and the renovation plans. “Being somewhat familiar with the Villa Maria, it’s been an incredible piece of real estate historically.”

Despite a call from a member of the Florence Township Board to slow the process, Drotos and three other commissioners approved the CUP for the project.

“I’m ready to make some decisions about this property,” Drotos said.

Rupp said because he’d already filed demolition permits under the previous zoning standards, work has already begun to enlarge the rooms by removing walls to make larger suites.

“I’m hoping to have the mechanical systems, heating and air conditioning and preconstruction plumbing and wiring, done by this winter so we can have the hotel open by next winter,” Rupp said.

In the meantime, the CUP means Rupp can start taking reservations for weddings to take place next summer. Eventually, the site will have two wedding venues, one for a more “country style” wedding on the west end of the property, and a more formal setting at the French-style villa.

“I see this as a competitor to the North Shore,” Rupp said. “However popular the Lake Pepin valley is, it’s strange to me that it isn’t more popular.”

The resort facility will include restaurant and event spaces and will focus on remodeling the existing facilities on the site along with constructing additions to provide spaces for lodging, guest-houses, cabins, outdoor entertainment and events.

The remodeling and construction will take place over two phases, according to the plans submitted to the county for approval. Rupp said the strategy is to create a way to fund each component separately over time.

He also wants to protect the property’s historical value into the future, he said. “I have, in the past, put some of my projects on the National Register,” Rupp said.

That’s the plan for the 1946 Marian Hall building.

“I think the reuse of that facility is key,” said Commissioner Brad Anderson. “What you’ve put together here looks really good.”

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