Children's museum plan gives way to brewery in Lake Villa
A notable step in a continuing effort to revive Lake Villa's downtown area is in the works with the planned conversion of a long vacant car dealership to a craft brewery.
The former Chrysler dealership at 136 Cedar Ave., which for many years was envisioned as the permanent location of the Busy Brains Children's Museum, is under contract with a closing scheduled this week.
Village officials recently authorized a $175,000 incentive for Harbor Brewing Co. LLC. The incentive agreement requires Harbor to open within two years and stay in business for at least two years.
"They'd like to open sooner," said village Administrator Karl Warwick. Harbor owner Kyle Wenzel said he is eager to get going and is targeting May 2021 for what will be the brewer's much larger second location.
Harbor opened in May 2018 on Sheridan Road in a strip mall in Winthrop Harbor. It has been operating in about 2,800 square feet, but rapid growth prompted a search for more space, Wenzel said. The 14,171-square-foot building on Cedar Avenue was listed for sale this summer for $225,000.
"We were looking at towns we'd like to be in and enjoyed, and Lake Villa popped up almost immediately," he said. "We like the small town feel," added Wenzel, who said he used to hang out in the village.
Wenzel said he already has ordered larger brewing tanks and he expects to spend $300,000 to $400,000 to ready the building for business as a brewery and tap room.
"It's going to need a complete overhaul," he said. "A lot of stuff is out of date and out of code." Initial plans are to operate in the front portion of the building with uses in the back half to be determined.
The site is within a tax increment financing district designated by the village in June 2016 to spark redevelopment, particularly in the traditional downtown area along Cedar between Railroad Avenue and Grand Avenue (Route 132). In a TIF district, taxes collected on higher property values as improvements are made don't go to taxing bodies, such as school districts and libraries, but are kept in a special fund for projects and expenses in the designated area.
Warwick said Harbor will get the money upfront to buy the property, but the village will pay itself back through the TIF. According to the agreement, the building would be conveyed to the village if the conditions aren't met.
When complete, the sale will mark the end of Busy Brains' involvement with the property, a deteriorating building it received as a gift. Circumstances regarding development of the building became frustrating for both sides.
"We have closed that chapter of the book," said Heidi Alexander, operations director and co-founder of the venture that began in 2003 and has continued as a traveling museum.
The village in 2015 agreed to provide $50,000 for repairs on the condition the museum open by Dec. 31, 2017. The deadline was extended a year, and while substantial work was done, costs exceeded available funds and the project stalled.
Busy Brains secured a loan to repay the village after it demanded the money back and determined selling the building would be the best course for the future.
This past Tuesday, the museum opened a pop-up with four new traveling exhibits in the former Bath & Body Works at Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills that will run until Jan. 5.
"Once the (Lake Villa) building sells, it will free us up to make some decisions going forward," Alexander said. "We still would like to have a permanent location for exhibits."
The Harbor Brewing incentive would not have been possible without the TIF district, village officials say.
"This is the second major economic incentive package provided in the TIF district with hopefully more to come," Warwick said.
The village provided $800,000 for Timothy O'Toole's Pub Lake Villa, which opened in May 2018 in the former Blackthorn Grille at Cedar and Grand. The project included the renovation of a 12-unit apartment building and a home nearby.