NOTE TO READERS: This is Part 3 of a three-part series investigating three projects that have received preliminary funding agreements from the city of DeKalb using funds from an expired second tax increment financing district.
DeKALB – The restaurant business is in Tom Schmidt’s blood.
That’s why Schmidt, co-owner of Hometown Sports Bar & Grill, 241 E. Lincoln Highway, plans to expand the bar to include another passion: entertainment.
“For me, it’s about wanting to give back to the community and have something really neat that an individual can come to,” Schmidt said, comparing his bar atmosphere to “Cheers” while sitting on a corner stool at the downtown DeKalb digs. “It’s kind of a pride thing a little bit. DeKalb has treated us pretty well, and I think it’s something that’s needed downtown.”
Longtime live music venue Otto’s nightclub, 118 E. Lincoln Highway, had to close in 2014 after a pipe burst on the second floor. Schmidt is hoping to take on the responsibility of filling that niche and enlivening downtown with a Hometown expansion.
Enter “Stage Left,” an estimated 15,000-square-foot space next door at
249 E. Lincoln Highway, which Schmidt is dubbing “Stage Left by Hometown Sports Bar & Grill,” where he hopes to have a stage for live music, comedy shows and other live entertainment – to add to the bar’s already popular, twice-weekly karaoke nights and magician shows. The space will include 14 to
20 tables, two restrooms, and an outdoor patio and deck area. Schmidt hopes to grow his employee base from 18 to about 30 people.
On Dec. 18, the DeKalb City Council earmarked $150,000 in surplus funds from the tax increment financing district known as TIF 2. The funds will be finalized in the coming weeks, and although Schmidt said he’d love to be open for the Super Bowl on Feb. 3, he hopes the project will take three to four months. The city’s tax increment financing contribution will account for 27 percent of the total project cost, which Schmidt estimates at almost $560,000.
“In the beginning, I didn’t even consider TIF money,” Schmidt said. “Talking with some of the city planners, and telling them my ideas, they said ‘Wow, that’d be a great project for TIF,’ so I started looking into it, and it doesn’t make sense to not utilize something that’s available.”
Mayor Jerry Smith said the Hometown project is “proof positive” of TIF dollars with a “great potential” for return on investment.
“Something like [Stage Left] sounds like the re-energization that we need to see in downtown DeKalb,” Smith said.
Schmidt and his co-owner and wife, Kristine, live in Batavia, but have commuted daily to DeKalb since Hometown opened its doors. One of eight children, Schmidt said his parents owned and operated a number of taverns and a banquet hall in Batavia, and he tended the bar when he was 12, and was managing one of the places by the time he turned 17.
In college at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, he majored in music – he plays drums and guitar in a local band called Field Day – and then opened his own trucking business upon graduation. Ironically, he wanted to re-enter the restaurant business so he would have a “less demanding” job.
“[The restaurant business] is a ton of work, but once it gets in your blood, it’s really hard to get rid of it,” Schmidt said. “It was kind of natural to go back to it,”
Hometown’s claim to fame are the wings (60 cents on Tuesdays with $2 Tallboys) and burgers, all made fresh, according to Schmidt, who uses many of his made-from-scratch recipes in the kitchen, including his grandmother’s corned beef recipe.
“Every hometown has their favorite sandwich, so that’s what we started to build the concept on,” Schmidt said, adding he was inspired by his travels to Philadelphia (cheesesteaks) and the West Coast (Fresco burgers).
“I’ve always liked cooking, and I helped my mom in the kitchen all the time,” Schmidt said. “It’s a great reward when you see families sitting down and they’re eating, and going, ‘Man, this is really good,’ so you get that kind of instant gratification out of it. It drives me a little bit, putting smiles on people’s faces.”
Schmidt calls the renovations for Stage Left “a small build-out,” since the place already was gutted after Schmidt bought it in July. The stage will be on display in the front, with a sliding garage door at the entrance to give it an “open feel,” in Schmidt’s words.
The wall between the two neighboring spaces will remain intact, but patrons can enter Stage Left from a door in the back of Hometown’s bar area. The kitchen in the Hometown bar space will remain as is, but a second, smaller full-service bar will be installed in the Stage Left space.
“I keep looking at [Stage Left] as more of an entertainment facility, because what are we doing here?” Schmidt pondered. “When you go out, you want to be entertained. You can go anywhere and watch TV, but where can you go to have some fun and get some good food?”