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Business

by Fairfield County Business Journal
by FCBJ

With $5 million renovation project wrapped, Norwalk’s LaKota Oaks goes about reintroducing itself

When it was announced last summer that The Dolce Norwalk event and conference center had been sold for a reported $19 million – and that it would be renovated and rebranded almost immediately as LaKota Oaks – it caught a lot of people unawares.

Not that it was under new ownership, necessarily – but that it existed at all.

“This facility has been Connecticut’s best-kept secret far too long,” said Sam L. Haigh upon being named its general manager in September – a sentiment echoed by Christine Imbrogno, who on March 14 was named LaKota Oaks’ director of sales and marketing.

“It’s the bane of my existence,” she laughed in her office at LaKota Oaks’ site at 32 Weed Ave. “We had a group come through on a tour the other day and someone said, ‘Oh my gosh, I live just down the street and I never knew this existed.’ ”

The facility’s history dates back to 1904, when it was established as the Holy Ghost Fathers’ Seminary at Ferndale. It has gone through several iterations since, but hand-carved stations of the cross still are visible along the site’s 1.6-mile hiking trail.

Imbrogno, Haigh and the rest of the three-building complex’s 92-member staff are now rededicated to showing off the facility. Given that it consists of 10,500 square feet — including 120 guest rooms, 20 collaborative spaces for training, strategic planning and team building and a recreation center that features a four-lane lap pool, a full-sized basketball court, racquet ball courts and a fitness center — on 66 acres, that shouldn’t be a tall order.

But as Imbrogno explained, LaKota Oaks “is a private hotel and confer-ence center. It’s not open to the public — you need to be part of a meet-ing, or coming to a social event as a guest — and you can’t just come in off the street and grab a glass of wine or a burger at the bar.”

Imbrogno indicated that discussions have taken place with the city about remaking its dining room to welcome outsiders, though concerns by neighboring residents could be difficult to overcome.

The $5 million in renovations to everything from its 300-capacity ball-room to its guest rooms and conference rooms — ranging from new car-peting and linens to added windows and tech capabilities — have made an obvious difference. And they are all the more impressive for having been done on time: two different crews began work on Dec. 17 and wrapped before Feb. 24, when the LaKota was hosting a sold-out event.

The facility averages two to three conferences a week and two to three events, such as weddings, a month — numbers that Imbrogno said very much represent room for improvement. LaKota is expanding its reach in the community and is in the midst of hosting numerous open house-style events to familiarize potential customers with what it offers.

Employees are being asked to invite their PTAs, church groups or other organizations to which they belong to come in for a tour, while interns from New Canaan High School are expected to get the word out via so-cial media. LaKota is also sponsoring Imbrogno’s son’s Little League team and will erect signage on its home field.

The rebranding reflects not just the renovations but also the facility’s new ownership. LaKota Hotels & Resorts is a specialized hospitality op-erating company whose mandate is to focus on new hotel, resort and conference center openings as well as rejuvenate underperforming sites.

Sam D. Haigh, former president and chief operating officer of Bench-mark Hospitality and former president of Doral Hotels and Resorts (and father of Sam L. Haigh) partnered with Andy and Danny Dolce, former chairman and vice president, development for Dolce International (and Dolce Norwalk namesakes) to create the parent company.