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With live shows and lake life, downtown Hobart called 'a sleeping giant' on the verge
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With live shows and lake life, downtown Hobart called 'a sleeping giant' on the verge

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HOBART — Though it might not have the reputation of downtown Valparaiso or Crown Point quite yet, downtown Hobart has a lot to offer.

The city's commercial hub along Main Street is on the National Register of Historic Places, with dozens of well-preserved Art Deco, Italianate and Classical Revival buildings dating back as far as 1869.

It centers around Lake George, where people can go for a scenic stroll, rent a kayak or cast a fishing line. The new $7 million Third Street Bridge project will allow larger recreational boats to enter the lake, a mill pond on Deep River that was originally used to power gristmills and sawmills.

After a day of shopping, dining or a show, one can walk around the lake and see ducks, geese, seagulls, startlingly white egrets with elegantly swan-like necks, and majestic blue herons that lift into the air with a ponderously flapping wingspan as dramatic as a dragon.

This Halloween season, Lakefront Park in Hobart has been decorated with plastic skeletons perched in trees and on park benches in keeping with a general whimsy. It's a place where rainbow-colored Grateful Dead-themed skeletons dance outside City Hall and a directional sign points the way to Sleepy Hollow, Salem and Elm Street.

With low rents and an influx of younger home buyers into town, the central commercial district of the city in east Lake County has attracted hip newer businesses like The Librarium Cafe, where people can play board games while sipping a cold brew or Harry Potter-inspired butterbeer; Green Door Books that often exhibits the work of local artists and hosts open mic nights; and Tom Lounge's Record Bin, where music aficionados can browse vinyl records or vintage Star Plaza Theatre posters. It mixes long-established bars like Cagney's Saloon and End Zone Bar & Grill with trendy newer dining spots like Montego Bay Grill, Cafe 339, 54 Main Bistro and El Capitan, a Mexican eatery that specializes in seafood.

The coronavirus pandemic slowed momentum downtown Hobart had been building up with new business openings. But many merchants believe it's just a few businesses away — perhaps a wine bar, craft distillery, brewpub or a few more women's boutiques — from achieving critical mass.

Diversity of offerings

But downtown Hobart already is a destination, especially for those who like rocking out or an evening of stand-up. People can catch live concerts, comedy shows and appearances by professional wrestlers like Mick Foley and "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan at the Hobart Art Theatre, a historic Art Deco movie theater with distinctive murals that's been transformed into a live entertainment venue. 

Hobart Art Theatre owner Shane Evans, a lifelong Hobart resident, took over the historic venue in January of last year and did extensive renovations, including putting in professional lighting and sound, as well as a sound booth near the stage. The throwback theater from a bygone era occasionally still shows films like a recent screening of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

"That was super fun. We're going to do more nostalgic-type movies," he said. "First-run movies just aren't in the cards for us as a single-screen theater. For us it's really about the live entertainment. Concerts, comedy, that's really our go-to at this point. The acoustics of the room were made for sound. It was a no-brainer to turn it into a concert hall." 

The 500-seat venue has been pulling in national acts like Dave Davies of The Kinks, Uncle Kracker, Insane Clown Posse, the late Joe Diffie, Brian Babylon, Tim Meadows, Pauly Shore, and Randy of "Trailer Park Boys." But Evans said it also hoped to pull in some local and regional acts like Echoes of Pompeii and American English.

"Without the Star Plaza anymore, we want to pull in some of those bigger acts, pull them in here," he said. "We've started to pull in bigger acts. A lot went on hold, but we're starting to get them back."

Evans also renovated the Brickhouse Bar and Grill next door, which serves gourmet burgers, other pub-style food and many spirits. He hopes to continue to bring big-name national acts in rock, R&B, country and heavy metal to the Hobart Art Theatre, as well as to offer a venue for local performers.

"For me to see this place essentially dying was detrimental," he said. "This is a staple of downtown Hobart. I was happy to get in here and try to do something with it. It helps bring business to everybody."

Mike Massengill, the owner of the neighboring Green Door Books, said the revitalized Art Theatre has been a big draw to downtown.

"I ask a lot of my customers where they're from, and I'm always surprised by how many say they're not from Hobart," he said. "It's a lot of time for the biggest events at the theater."

Hobart also is home to a lot of unique retail such as Lake County Divers Supply and The Librarium, a mix of a coffee shop and a gaming store in a historic 120-year-old building.

"We are a nerdy, gaming, pop culture cafe," owner Kaydee Frostborne said. "We serve food, coffee, bubble tea, pastries."

During normal times, kids flock there to play board games like Magic: The Gathering and Settlers of Catan.

"A lot of kids came here to do homework and meet up prior to the pandemic," she said. "Basically, we've had to shut down our dining room and make it takeout or curbside-only. We started doing online ordering. We've been trying to slow the spread as much as we can while still staying open."

Downtown Hobart boasts a diversity of offerings, she said.

"There something for everyone really," she said. "There's a lot of cool restaurants and events. The lakefront bridge just got done, and it's cool to walk through. It is very pretty."

A lot of potential

Brickies Gyros moved from the bridge, where it was a small hot dog stand with picnic tables, to a much larger spot on West Third Street with more space for dining in. 

Manager Niki Jaworski said the fast-food restaurant that specializes in gyros and hot dogs has much more room and a hall for private parties. It's grown into a staple in downtown Hobart where one can grab a quick bite.

"We like the community involvement and how many things there are to do down here," Jaworski said. "I see us growing and adding more businesses in the area and hopefully becoming a destination spot for travel. With our Art Theatre, Lakefront Park and everything, we've got a lot of cool things happening down here. We actually restore our historic buildings instead of tearing them down."

The city has been working to rebuild the downtown, such as with a historic facade grant program and recent construction projects on Third and Main streets.

"It's unique in that it's a downtown based by the lake," former longtime council member John Brezik said. "You don't have that much anywhere. It's quaint. It has an attractiveness about it. People feel comfortable here. It has unique stores and shops. There's been a lot of reinvestment here, and it's a historic district." 

The historic ambiance of the charming Main Street has helped draw in businesses like Toys in the Attic, which also has locations in similar settings in downtown Crown Point and Valparaiso.

Owners Tim and Chris Reddick opened the vintage store that specializes in games, puzzles, puppets, arts and crafts and, of course toys, like Playmobil sets.

"We're a retro toy store that stays away from technology, mostly learning and development, free play," Tim Reddick said. "Our catch phrase is 'kid power.' It's unique items you won't find in the big-box stores. We provide an experience more than just a product at all our stores. All our buildings date back to at least 1890."

Downtown Hobart merchants benefit from loyal customers, Reddick said.

"People want the downtown businesses to succeed," he said. "There's a connection with Main Street USA and a lakefront that draws people downtown."

He believes the downtown has a lot of potential.

"It's a sleeping giant," he said. "There's a trend for people to get into downtown areas. With the improvements they've done to the lakefront inviting lakefront visitors to a historic downtown area, we just need a few more draws. I'm constantly sharing the variety of stores and the uniqueness of this area."

Gallery: A Walk Through Downtown Hobart

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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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