From College Camp(us) to Luxe Retreat

By Anne Morrissy | Rendering Courtesy of Topography

After several months of speculation regarding the fate of its George Williams College (GWC) campus in Williams Bay, Aurora University announced on Dec. 20 of last year that it planned to sell the 137-acre property to a boutique hospitality firm. Topography Hospitality is headed by Liam Krehbiel, “scion of a noted Chicago-area business family,” according to the Chicago Tribune. Krehbiel is the founder and CEO of A Better Chicago and owner of Ballyfin, a similar boutique hospitality property in Ireland.

In its announcement, Aurora University officials declared that they had “entered into a contract to sell the GWC campus to a boutique hospitality firm whose emphasis is sustainability and ecology.” The press release went on to add that, “Plans for the property, in addition to conferencing and lodging, include creating a perpetual preserve of the currently undeveloped land that will be available for the community to enjoy, as well as the continuation of an annual music festival.”

At a meeting of the Williams Bay Village Board in January, Topography Hospitality presented their plans for a luxury inn, retreat center and nature preserve they have named The Preserve at Williams Bay. Renderings of Topography’s plans for the property show plans to convert the current 90-acre golf course (shuttered for 20 years) into a public nature preserve which will be linked to the Geneva Lake Shore Path. On the main campus, Topography’s plans include a country inn and cabins, a restaurant and a full-service spa, as well as a new retreat center, a performing arts center and an amphitheater, which would continue to host the popular Music by the Lake series.

According to the Chicago Tribune, initial building concepts submitted to the Village of Williams Bay Planning Commission suggest that several of the existing structures on the property would remain in the redevelopment, while others would be demolished (including the current Ferro Pavilion), with the total building square footage decreasing from 109,143 square feet to 94,000 square feet.

Early reports from the Lake Geneva Regional News indicated that initial response from the Village Board — including Village President Bill Duncan, a 41-year veteran administrator at George Williams College — was generally positive. However, Duncan did express concern about changing the permitted use of the site from nonprofit, institutional use to commercial use. The Village Board’s vote on the necessary rezoning of the property had not been scheduled as of press time and a final decision may be many months away.

If approved, the Preserve at Williams Bay could be sited directly next to another proposed retreat center. Ann Drake, a Chicago business leader, has proposed the construction of a Women’s Leadership Retreat Center on an 8.6-acre parcel of land previously owned by the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory, located directly to the east of the George Williams College campus. The Village Board approved a conditional-use permit necessary for the construction of Drake’s retreat center, but the project ran into a snag when Drake’s team objected to a handful of public easements recommended by the village’s building engineer, including one for a future sewer line. Negotiations are ongoing.

Author: atthelake

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