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Downtown Crown Point keeps evolving while remaining a regional destination
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WHAT’S UP DOWNTOWN

Downtown Crown Point keeps evolving while remaining a regional destination

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Jerome Kucharski used to play in a band that often performed in dive bars in downtown Crown Point, such as the long-bygone Circle.

"It was all bars. There were eight bars on the square," he said. "It was like a college town without a college. But it's changed a lot, and I think for the better. It's more family-friendly now."

Bars and antique stores were once the big draws to downtown Crown Point, a historic commercial hub dating back to 1873 that's listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It's known for its charming array of late 19th- and early 20th-century brick architecture, including the tree-flanked centerpiece — the Old Lake County Courthouse, known as the Grand Old Lady. Busloads of senior citizens on antique hunts and bar-hoppers still, of course, flock downtown.

But it's been evolving.

A mix of old, new

Downtown Crown Point has emerged as one of the Region's trendiest dining spots, where classics like Lucrezia Italian Ristorante and Prime Steakhouse have been joined in recent years by newer, varied and often upscale entries like Provecho Latin Provisions, Square Roots, Tavern on Main and Battista's Artisan Pizzeria. New additions have included outposts of Munster's True BBQ and Valparaiso's Ricochet Tacos, where crowds have flocked for gourmet tacos like the "Gin-jitsu" seared ahi tuna taco or "Dat New New" house-cured pastrami taco topped with napa pico, jalapeno and Funyuns crumbles.

Despite the recent relocation of the three-story Old Town Square Antique Mall, a landmark for more than three decades, downtown Crown Point remains a hub for antiquing with shops like Antiques on Main and Blue Ribbon Vintage. The downtown has, however, established a wide array of local, independent and sometimes niche shops like the Scandinavian and Viking jewelry shop Nordikreations, Heidi's House of Clock Retail and the Blue Pear Mercantile "merchant of unusual things" gift shop. Crown Point Toys & Collectibles, Epic Popcorn and Eyewear on the Square are among the recent additions.

"I love the quaintness that it has become over the last 21 years I have been on the square," said Rhonda Bloch, the owner of Sip Coffee House, which has since expanded to include locations in Highland and Cedar Lake. "I have watched it grow from an outdated town to what it is now. I think businesses have watched it as well and waited for it to grow a bit before moving in.

"It is a upscale town where new places are setting the trend for pricing and well as rent. I believe in this country, and I am in the works of opening another new business on the square. I believe it will all be OK for the businesses. They just have to have faith in believe in what they do."

Kucharski said part of downtown Crown Point's charm lies in the blend of the traditional and the new.

He and his wife, Katie Kucharski, owned Pierogi Square in a strip mall by Fat Burrito and then seized the opportunity to buy the longtime institution Crown Town Grill, which they rebranded as Jax's Crown Town Grill — named after their son, Jax. They added Polish fare to the traditional American menu of hamburgers and hot dogs and have been further innovating, such as by adding chef-driven items, including a seasonal Oktoberfest menu with pretzel bun burgers and pretzels with beer cheese.

"The square has so much history and charm," he said. "It's got a great atmosphere. Very lively. Very family-oriented. They've done an excellent job in preserving the historical value of these buildings. The setting is very charming. There's lots of shopping and excellent restaurants."

His business struggled for months after the coronavirus pandemic first hit but rebounded almost immediately when Indiana entered Stage 4 of its reopening plan. It's again overflowing with high school students seeking scoops of ice cream and chicken strips.

"I think the bar scene might die down a little bit," Kucharski said. "I think we're going to see more restaurants and more boutique shops. I think it's going to be like a mini-Broad Ripple place where you're still going to have some bars, but it's going to evolve past just that. It's charming. It's a place you want to bring people from other towns."

Downtown Crown Point retails many institutions like Papa's Deli, which has sold deli meats, imported European groceries, ice cream, subs and gyros on the square for 40 years.

"I like everything about Crown Point," owner Angelo Dimolis said. "I like the area. I like the people."

Another mainstay, Crown Brewing has been an anchor of and draw to downtown Crown Point since 2008, despite being a few blocks off the square. The brewery opened next to the 35-year-old Carriage Court Pizza in the old boiler room for the Lake County Jail in the same year that "Public Enemies" came out.

"It was 3 Floyds, and I do believe we were second, and then there was 18th Street," bartender Airik Lambert said.

While businesses have come and gone in downtown Crown Point since the craft brewery first opened, downtown has remained a lively destination.

"We're pretty convenient and close," he said. "We haven't really slowed down. Even with new restaurants opening, like Ricochet, it draws more people. People are drawn to downtowns instead of strip malls. Most strip malls are very chain-like. It gives you more nostalgia and something different. Even in the wintertime there's always something to do. Every place is a little different. It's a good nightlife scene, and there's a place to grab a drink beforehand and after."

Ever evolving 

The downtown continues to attract newer businesses, like Warped Sportz, which sells skateboarding and paintball gear. 

The shop has served skaters and paintball players across Northwest Indiana and greater Chicagoland since 1999, but it always was located on U.S. 30 in Schererville until it relocated three years ago.

"In 1999, U.S. 30 was woods, woods, plaza, woods, woods, plaza," owner George Longfellow said. "It was two lanes where people went 40 mph. Now it's like nonstop businesses with six lanes and turning lanes and everybody's going 60 mph, so nobody's going to turn and look. So why pay a higher rent for a business where no one's going to see you. If you have a sign for the store, it better light up the whole building like Portillo's."

He's found downtown Crown Point to be a more pleasant change of pace that's still centrally located for customers in Porter County, North Lake County, the Tri-Town area and Illinois.

"We got a lot of walk-ins," he said. "With the restaurants opening up like crazy, you've got a lot of people who want to walk through and see what you got."

Michael Flores, a longtime music lover who plays guitar, opened Antique Vault and Records in the Historic Courthouse Shops in Downtown Crown Point five years ago. Fortified by a steel bank door, the brick-clad room that once held paper records for the infamous marriage mill in downtown Crown Point now holds vinyl records for music lovers and collectors.

"It's an essential business for your mental health," he said. "If you've got a soul, you would appreciate it. Now more than ever, people want music. It helps them. This is like Field of Dreams. I built a shop of vinyl, and people came. This is definitely a mecca for collectors or anyone who loves music."

In addition to vinyl records, Antique Vault and Records also sells turntables and other physical media, including CDs, cassette tapes and 8-track tapes. It carries multiple genres, including rock, blues, jazz, classical and comedy.

"It's a curated shop of vinyl," he said. "I know what I have, and I don't have any junk. I have everything A to Z, everyone anyone would ever want or be looking for on vinyl. My taste is all over the place, and my records are a reflection of the owner's personal taste and also for the masses because you've got to know what sells. And I think I've done that very well."

The old Courthouse Shops on the lower level of the courthouse, also a popular wedding venue, is home to many other eclectic retailers like a toy store, candy shop and antique firearms store.

Kim Boyd, a former buyer for the Montgomery Ward department store, opened the Little Pink Shop women's boutique there seven years ago. Her store specializes in clothing, jewelry, handbags, scarves, bath and body products and purses.

"I don't think any place else around has such a beautiful courthouse and a nice square to eat out, shop and just relax and spend time with family," she said. "The Courthouse Shops are all different. We all have our uniqueness. It brings different people down."

Mescolare Gourmet Foods sells kitchenware and largely locally sourced gourmet foods like a Bloody Mary mix, pickled vegetables and a sweet bourbon glaze just next door to the Little Pink Shop.

"We cater to foodies, people who love to eat," owner Cyndi Horn said. "We're not a traditional kitchen store. Mescolare means to mix in Italian, and it's a mix."

Mescolare has been selling aprons, spatulas and stylish kitchen decor in the Courthouse Shops for the past nine years. It's been an exciting time to be in downtown Crown Point.

"I love the history. And I love the changes that are happening," she said. "It's neat to see how it's evolved. I first came to Crown Point in 2005 in banking, and it's neat to see how things have changed over the last 15 years."

A walk through downtown Crown Point

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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