Former auto dealership being converted to brewery, taproom in Lake Villa
Work to repurpose an old building in Lake Villa's downtown district along Cedar Avenue as a local brewery has shifted into high gear.
Asbestos and lead paint have been removed from the long vacant former Chrysler dealership, and electricians, plumbers and masonry crews are going full-bore in the yawning open space.
"Every day I come here, it looks wildly different," said Kyle Wenzel, owner and head brewer of Harbor Brewing Company in Winthrop Harbor. "We'll hopefully meet the original deadline."
That would be in October, although Wenzel wants to finish the huge project, which involves a complete overhaul of the 1910 building, sooner.
After a long pause during the pandemic, the buzz of activity is welcome news for Wenzel, who will be vastly expanding his operation, and the village, which is providing substantial incentives to help.
Vacant for more than 20 years, the deteriorating building at 136 Cedar Ave. has been considered a key piece in the village's ongoing effort to revitalize its downtown as a center of activities and a place to be.
"They've worked real hard to invest in the building and make it something it isn't today," village Administrator Karl Warwick said. "That place wouldn't be opening if it wasn't for both of us."
In recent years, the focus had been on a proposal to convert the building into the Busy Brains Childrens Museum, which the organization had received as a gift.
The roof was replaced and interior trusses repaired. But costs to continue exceeded available funds and the building was put up for sale in the fall of 2019.
Wenzel opened Harbor Brewing in May of 2018 in a small strip mall space along Sheridan Road in Winthrop Harbor. He wanted to expand and saw the listing for the 14,171-square-foot Lake Villa building -- about 10 times the size of his facility.
"I saw the trusses on the ceiling and instantly fell in love," Wenzel said. "It's going to be our production brewery. Our entire brewhouse will be there."
Half the space will be a taproom with views of the brewing operation and 20 craft beers on tap.
However, details are fluid. This past week, for example, it was determined the former dealership wash bays, which jut from the main building, couldn't be repurposed and will be demolished. The space will be incorporated into a large beer garden.
Eager to get the project going, the village in 2019 authorized a $175,000 incentive toward the property's purchase. The requirement was that it be open within two years (October 2021) or the village would get the building.
But the pandemic slowed progress. Harbor Brewing had closed its original taproom but, in May of 2020, opened a lakefront beer garden and focused its attention there.
"Instead of working that last summer like our plan was, we kind of put it (Lake Villa) on hold," Wenzel said.
Work resumed earlier this year. But after the asbestos and lead paint were cleared, unexpected issues surfaced. The plumbing, for example, was clogged beneath the concrete floor and is being completely replaced out to the street.
"The only thing we haven't done are the walls and the roof. Everything else is getting redone," Wenzel said.
With that, the village authorized a second incentive of $375,000, solely for building improvements. Wenzel said the renovation budget is $550,000, not including the building cost, brewing equipment or the planned beer garden.
The required completion date also was extended to next May, Warwick added.
The area is part of a village-designated tax increment financing district intended to prompt redevelopment, particularly in the traditional downtown along Cedar between Railroad Avenue and the heavily traveled Grand Avenue (Route 132).
In a TIF district, rather than going to taxing bodies like school or library districts, taxes collected on higher property values as improvements are made are put in a special fund to be used for projects and expenses in the district.
The village provided Harbor Brewing with money upfront as an incentive but will recoup that money as the tax increment increases.
The district is within walking distance of the Lake Villa Metra train station and Lehmann Park on Cedar Lake.
"Right now, we're trying to create that destination," Warwick said.
The main project to date has been the renovation of the former Blackthorn Grille at Cedar and Grand as Timothy O'Toole's Pub Lake Villa, streetscape upgrades and a pending medical office building.