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It takes a village: Revitalizing Lake Villa

Karl Warwick, Lake Villa village administrator, stands in front of a new parking lot on Cedar Avenue in downtown Lake Villa.
Karl Warwick, Lake Villa village administrator, stands in front of a new parking lot on Cedar Avenue in downtown Lake Villa.

LAKE VILLA – Lake Villa is beginning to roll out its plan to revitalize its downtown area by welcoming a new restaurant to the area.

Timothy O’Toole’s Restaurant is launching its fourth location in Lake Villa with an anticipated grand opening at the end of February. Other locations include Chicago, Gurnee and Libertyville.

O’Toole’s owners Sara McKinnon and Humberto Martinez Jr. have settled into the vacant building that formerly housed Blackthorn Grille on Cedar Avenue in downtown Lake Villa.

The husband-and-wife business team first opened the O’Toole’s flagship restaurant in downtown Chicago in 1992 and are excited to make this new restaurant a go-to community destination, from post-soccer game team luncheons to date nights. 

In the restaurant business – as with any consumer-driven industry – location is key and Martinez says that when they first saw the rundown building sitting on a relatively quiet street corner, he had his doubts; after speaking with the village trustees and getting a feel for the area, however, he says there was one thing that changed his mind: passion.

“We started walking around talking to more and more people and we felt the passion here,” he said. “I can’t say I’ve met anyone here who’s not ultra-nice.”

McKinnon adds: “We’ve always been about being a part of the community at whatever location we’re in and as we were talking to more and more people, we really felt this community needed a place to call their own. Their own neighborhood place.”

Lake Villa’s revitalization is not a new endeavor, Village Administrator Karl Warwick said. Last year, the village initiated efforts to beautify the downtown area and improve the village’s infrastructure.

With grant funds, the village was able to replace sidewalks, install decorative lighting, bury unsightly utility lines and install additional downtown parking. Additional stages of infrastructure improvements are being planned, but with this first phase of streetscape improvements complete, Warwick hopes O’Toole’s will spearhead the village’s revitalization from the business side.

“It’s a big deal for a restaurant like O’Toole’s to open up in Lake Villa,” he said in a telephone interview. “We’ve concentrated a lot of efforts on there. … We just want to concentrate on making sure they’re successful and then building a framework for additional businesses once they’ve proven that they’ll be successful.”

McKinnon says she and Martinez are no strangers to challenges, and each location has presented them with its own unique risk that many told them would never pay off. While this new location may be a risk, they both firmly believe it is one worth taking and they’ve proved that by investing a significant amount of money into nearly gutting the entire building and revamping it to make it their own. 

“Many people thought we’d take advantage,” Martinez said. “Just walk in, prop the doors open, a little paint. …No, that’s just not how we operate. And we also want to let people know that we are invested in this community. It’s gonna be challenging. We know that.”

Other property owners within the “Triangle” are also doing what they can to help inject some new life into their buildings. Gloria Meyers and her husband first purchased two side-by-side buildings along Cedar Avenue in 1999 with big plans to renovate them together. They both participated in revitalization committees with other members of the community and could envision a thriving new Lake Villa Triangle. 

Then the recession hit, Meyers says, and all plans were put on hold – including her and her husband’s plans for their new old property. Since then, Meyers relocated to Tampa Bay, Florida, and placed the property in the care of a property manager. She returned to Lake Villa this past August for the first time since her husband passed away 10 years ago.

“My husband definitely liked huge projects,” she said in a telephone interview. “This was his project.”

Her property had fallen into severe disrepair in her absence, but Meyers says the project gene was passed down to her son, who is now 19. 

“We call it ‘The Mansion,’” she said. “When we went there, (my son) just went gung-ho. I’ve never seen him work so hard on anything in his life. He really got into it. I was gonna plan on selling it, but then when I saw how passionate he was about it, I decided to keep it at least for the short term.”

Using all local contractors, Meyers and her son refurbished the buildings – a business structure paired with a residential duplex. While they still retain some of their historical charm inside the buildings – originally built in 1902 – the exterior has been re-sided and updated. 

Meyers is excited to see the village has resumed its revitalization efforts and says the village has been “waiting for this for a long time.” 

Down the street from Meyers’ buildings, Martinez and McKinnon continue to work around the clock to make sure O’Toole’s is open for business on schedule. St. Patrick’s Day is a major holiday for them, McKinnon says, and they plan to celebrate in style with their new community. Lake Villa residents appear to be just as excited for O’Toole’s to open and have already welcomed Martinez and McKinnon into the fold. 

“People are just so welcoming and friendly and nice here,” McKinnon said. “So that makes it exciting for us. It makes me want to get it going and make it the best that we can for them.”

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