JOLIET – A pair of entrepreneurial wizards are about to transform a vacant downtown building into a pinball arcade, their first step in a quest to create a family entertainment mecca on the Chicago Street corridor.
Matt and Chris Czarnowski, part of The Steelman Group that owns three buildings in downtown Joliet, plan to launch Chicago Street Pinball Arcade at 215 N. Chicago St. this summer.
The business will feature 25 to 30 vintage pinball machines, as well as a few 1990s video arcade games and an electro-mechanical driving machine.
“It’s nostalgic for people who played in the 1970s and ’80s when arcades were in their heydays,” said Chris Czarnowski, the sibling who focuses more on the property development end of the business. “Plus, it’s fun for younger people who’ve only played on home consoles and smart devices.”
The brothers see this modest start as an opportunity to gauge public interest in downtown entertainment.
“This is a proof of concept to see how the public takes to the idea,” Chris Czarnowski said. “We decided let’s open a pinball arcade and we’ll get a chance to talk to people and see what they want.”
If the venture takes off, the Czarnowskis could move into the bonus round. The Steelman Group owns a larger building at 9 W. Cass St. that it would like to develop as a family entertainment venue.
“We’ve talked to someone who owns a restaurant,” Chris Czarnowski said. “And someone who runs indoor mini golfing for the upper level. We’ve even talked to someone about laser tag.”
Ripe environment for development
The Czarnowskis see downtown Joliet, with its gritty urban feel and historic architecture, as a ripe environment for development.
They’ve already begun developing the Crystal Square Office, 81 N. Chicago St., where they brought in The Blue Taco, Regis Glass Art and Marsha Lega Studio. They see these types of artsy, avante-garde businesses as a perfect downtown fit.
“We want to be the pioneers, and we see good potential with the two colleges down there,” Chris Czarnowski said.
“There’s a lot of catalysts for cool things to happen,” he said, such as Lockdown Bar & Grill, a heavy metal-themed restaurant patterned after its parent restaurant in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, which is scheduled to open later this year at Chicago and Cass streets.
It’s this kind of development that gets Pam Owens, director of Joliet City Center Partnership, very excited.
“[The Czarnowskis] are real go-getters and they have a really great vision,” Owens said. “The guys doing our downtown plan are seeing the same thing. They are saying Joliet has a vibe. It’s not a white-bread community. A lot of towns have become very sterile, but Joliet has maintained its unique character.”
Mayor Tom Giarrante sees The Steelman Group as a new wave in downtown development.
“I think they’re ahead of the trend,” Giarrante said. “I think they can see what’s happening downtown and they want to get in now before interest peaks. Once the transportation center and the Joliet Junior College [downtown campus center] are there, there’s no question that the cost of property and rentals will go up.”
‘Barcades’ are trending
But for the arcade to succeed, it’s all about getting people to play that silver ball.
Mark Czarnowski is the brother who handles the machine side of the development.
An avid collector, he crossed over from video arcade consoles to vintage pinball machines several years ago.
His favorites are games such as Taxi, Black Knight 2000 and Dr. Dude, the Williams Electronics machines from 1985 to 1990 that offered a sophistication in play never before seen in the industry.
“That era of games is really popular with a lot of people,” Mark Czarnowski said. “Starting in 1985, the games got a lot more complex, with multiple balls, and synthesized music, not just beeps and chimes.
“They were fun and fast to play. The rules were very simple. You’d hit the shot ‘X’ number of times to lock a ball. Once you locked one or two balls, it started the multiball. Then you’d hit the shot lit for jackpot, unleashing crazy lighting effects and music.
“Once you got to the ’90s they got seriously more complex, with rule set stacked upon rule set stacked upon rule set, and wizard modes or final challenges. None of this stuff exists with the older games.”
The arcade will include several of the vintage pinball machines, as well as a few of the older electro-mechanical models, he said. He hopes the pinball machines, and vintage video arcade consoles, including the popular “Ms. Pac-Man,” will attract a steady clientele to the site.
The arcade initially will be open 3 p.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays, expanding to 3 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday if demand warrants.
“The whole ‘barcade’ thing is definitely trending in the past few years,” Mark Czarnowski said. “People love to come out and play retro games and drink.”
The arcade initially will offer only vending machine dispensed soft drinks and snacks, although a bar, pool tables and even a restaurant could come later.
“We definitely want to move in that direction,” Mark Czarnowski said. “There’s nothing else like it around here.”
The brothers said news of the arcade’s imminent opening has generated a lot of interest, and that they’ve already received several calls from people interested in booking the venue for parties.
New businesses in downtown Joliet
• Blue Taco, 79 N. Chicago St.
• Sue Regis Glass Art Studio, 81 N. Chicago St.
• Marsha Lega, 81 N. Chicago St.
• Allstate Insurance office, 167 N. Chicago St.
• Elevtech (Elevator call center), Chicago St., Crystal Square Building, second floor
• Cutler Eye Care Center, 358 E. Cass St.
Source: Joliet City Center Partnership