The Portage? Well it’s still in danger. Here’s the situation: A church located a few miles from the theater has outgrown its current location. When church reps found that the Portage was up for sale they jumped at the chance to buy it since the property is enormous. They plan to use the auditorium space for their presentations, the storefronts and apartments for other church business and events. They also plan to make significant alterations to the façade.
The alderman, John Arena, has been working with the church to try to find other, more suitable locations, but so far the church has refused to reconsider. This is not a matter of keeping the building owner from selling; there are several other offers on the property including one from the people who run the theater.
I haven’t yet run across any local who likes the idea of an enormous store-front church spang in the middle of the Six Corners business district, an area which used to be a thriving shopping and entertainment district, but has in the past twenty or thirty years become very down-at-the-heels. The re-opening of the theater has been a tremendous boost to pulling more business into the area. There’s a theater group and a museum of veterans’ art slated to open almost across the street from the Portage, and several new bistros and cafes which have recently opened or are about to open. The theater is an anchor for the neighborhood. Without it, and in fact with the church in its place, the area would almost certainly lose its momentum. The presence of a church (in the words of the group trying to save the theater) “would mean the eventual loss of a neighborhood favorite in the Portage Theater. The net effect would be a loss of tax revenue, economic revenue, economic engine that fuels activity in the corridor, and set insurmountable restrictions for businesses looking to open restaurants, bars and places of entertainment moving forward.”
Why does business matter? Because this area has been a ghost town for too long. When I was a child it was the central business district for all the neighborhoods around it. Then people began to leave the city in the late sixties and early seventies and bit-by-bit neighborhoods came apart. We need our neighborhoods. We need places where independent businesses can grow and thrive, where we can shop, dine, and be entertained close to home. Actual, physical involvement in a community is a deterrent to crime; it raises the bar for that community. Everyone benefits.
Why am I saying all this? Because the folks who want to save the Portage Theater have started a petition that they want to present at the final Zoning Board of Appeals hearing. The church needs special zoning permissions and the neighborhood is against granting them. They came to the last meeting unprepared, and were given a continuation. The board has made it clear that they will not get another continuation, so this is a make-or-break moment for the campaign to save the Portage. Please consider signing the petition. You don’t really have to be a resident of the area, or even a Chicagoan; you just have to care about what will happen to the neighborhood if this wonderful old theater is lost.