A new restaurant coming to a familiar corner in Lake Villa is the potential spark for a resurgence village leaders have been trying to ignite for years.
Everyone involved has a lot riding on the building makeover that will convert the shuttered Blackthorn Grille to a Timothy O'Toole's restaurant at the gateway of what is considered the small village's downtown.
O'Toole's, which was founded 25 years ago in downtown Chicago and in recent years opened in Gurnee and Libertyville, is the main attraction. But it's part of a three-pronged effort -- fueled by a $1 million village incentive -- to revive and revitalize Cedar Avenue north of Route 132.
Besides a fresh use for a deteriorating commercial building and a new parking lot across the street, the project involves renovation and rehab of a 12-unit apartment building and century-old single-family house on Cedar Avenue just north of O'Toole's.
Together, the investments amount to about $3.7 million, not including what will be spent by husband-wife restaurateurs Sara McKinnon and Humberto Martinez Jr.
"They're taking a chance, we're taking a chance," Martinez said of the village and property owner Ted Nielsen.
"Our end will be a minimum of $600,000," said Martinez, who began the restaurant renovation in November. "If it doesn't look and feel like a Timothy O'Toole's, it won't be a Timothy O'Toole's. We're invested in this together."
At the helm is Nielsen, a homegrown entrepreneur and former mayor who served 16 years on the village board and operates 140,000 square feet of business on 17 acres in town. The restaurant building will be leased to O'Toole's.
"My grandparents grew up in Lake Villa. I've put a lot of heart and soul in Lake Villa," Nielsen said. He said he wants to "spark that whole end of town" and help the village live up to its potential as a desirable place to live, work and visit.
In that regard, Nielsen's quest meshes with the intent of the village board, which includes his son, Jeff, who has abstained on votes involving agreements with his father.
The former restaurant and residential properties Nielsen bought out of foreclosure are within special financing districts designed to provide the village with funds to improve and raise the value of the overall area.
They will be the first incentives offered by the village since the area was designated in 2016 as tax increment financing and downtown business districts. In a TIF, increased tax revenue generated by development goes to a special fund for development-related expenses rather than being distributed to local taxing districts.
"A lot of people don't understand the TIF and think they're (village) giving money away," Nielsen said. "It's all about taking something, rehabbing it, bringing the value up, bringing the tax (base) up."
The business district has an added 1 percent sales tax to pay for the "planning, execution and implementation" of downtown plans.
In this case, the TIF incentive will provide Nielsen with 25 percent of the estimated cost -- about $850,000 -- for the restaurant rehab and upgrades to the apartment building and house. The sales tax from the business district provides Nielsen with 50 percent, or $150,000, of the cost of acquiring property and building a parking lot across Grand Avenue for O'Toole's.
Work on the apartments, which were damaged in a fire, has included new hardwood floors, bathroom and kitchen fixtures and appliances. The early 1900s-era house, which had been vacant, was upgraded and is being rented.
Nielsen, who was armed with demographic and other information regarding the village and market area, targeted O'Tooles as a potential family-oriented destination to fill the space.
In a sense, the O'Toole's building is coming full circle for Nielsen.
In 1969, he opened a snowmobile shop on the site in what had been a former gas station. Nielsen Enterprises grew and within a few years relocated about a mile away to Route 83 to become one of the Midwest's largest multiline sport vehicle dealerships.
Village Administrator Karl Warwick said the village is working on two other incentives involving new buildings in the TIF district that look "very promising."