Portage Theater owner, management in dispute
by BRIAN NADIG
A war of words has erupted between Alderman John Arena (45th) and the attorney for new Portage Theater building owner Eddie Carranza after the current management team of the theater was served a five-day eviction notice due a claim of unpaid rent.
The lease dispute is not expected to have any immediate effect on the operation of the theater, as the current operators have a lease through 2015 and they have indicated that they would fight any attempts at eviction. Carranza is seeking about $100,000 in rent, but the management team claims that the vast majority of that was withheld due to repairs that they made to the building.
Carranza, who also owns the Congress Theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee Ave., took possession of the 92-year-old Portage Theater on Aug. 31, but the final closing of the deal has not taken place, according to a real estate installment purchase contract that was filed with the Cook County Recorder of Deeds. The document states that a $100,000 deposit has been paid for the theater, which is being sold for $2.7 million, and that additional payments are due 75 days after the initial closing, which took place on Aug. 31.
Some residents have expressed concern that under its new ownership the theater, which is known for presenting film festivals, would be turned into a nightclub venue. The city Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection is holding a series of nuisance business hearings due to problems with rowdy crowds leaving the Congress Theater.
Arena wrote in his weekly newsletter that Carranza had promised not to make any change to the Portage Theater in the short term and his attorney, Thomas Raines, had assured him that the current operators of the theater would not be evicted. “In short, Mr. Carranza lied to me, and he lied to the community,” Arena wrote.
At issue is control of the public place of amusement and liquor licenses for the theater. Last week Raines met with David Dziedzic and Dennis Wolkowicz of the management team and Arena to discuss the possible transfer of the licenses to Carranza, who had offered to buy the corporation run by Dziedzic and Wolkowicz but who later pulled his offer off the table.
Carranza has said that he would like to work with the management team to bring more concerts to the theater, but under the city licensing code Carranza cannot share revenue from the sale of liquor unless he becomes an owner in the corporation, according to Arena’s office. Carranza reportedly wants control of the liquor license this fall, but Arena said that is too early.
“In light of his well documented problems at the Congress Theater, my office has repeatedly told Mr. Carranza that I would not support his holding of any liquor or public place of amusement licenses at the Portage Theater until he could prove, through a track record of problem-free management, that he had the ability to act as a responsible venue owner and liquor license holder. His documented history of deferred maintenance, rowdy crowds and underage drinking at the Congress is not welcome at Six Corners,” Arena wrote.
Raines said that Carranza had no intention of serving an eviction notice but that h e changed his mind after he heard about Arena’s behavior at last week’s meeting. “The alderman was dictating the terms in the meeting, and I told him it was not appropriate,” Raines said. “I was very uncomfortable.”
Raines said that Arena acted like “a bully” during the meeting and that he has become “a hindrance” to the redevelopment of the Six Corners shopping district. He said that Carranza has no plans to talk to Arena, no matter the effect on the situation. “Eddie has the resources to carry an empty building for a long time,” Raines said.
Raines said that Carranza is interested in working with Wolkowicz, who is the main manger of the Portage, to keep movies as part of the theater’s entertainment mix but that more live shows are needed to make the theater financially viable.
“Our plans for the Portage are still being developed, and we plan to win over the community,” Raines said. “We’re willing to meet with any organization. We’ve already met with (the Six Corners Association and the Old Irving Park Association).”
“That does not sound like the meeting that I was at,” Dziedzic said. He said that Arena was invited to the meeting to gauge his opinion on the transfer of the licenses because he has a lot of influence in the matter and that the alderman was not involved in the financial negotiations.
Dziedzic said that Arena’s comments during the meeting centered on his concern for the needs of residents living near the theater. “He was sticking up for the community, doing his job,” he said.
Arena’s chief of staff Owen Brugh, who attended the meeting, described it as “tense” at times but said that there was no indication that negotiations were falling apart or that Carranza would take action to evict the managers. Brugh said that Arena has a strong track record of working with property owners at Six Corners, helping to attract a storefront theater, an art museum and a restaurant to the block where the Portage is located.
Dziedzic said that he remains “cautiously optimistic” that things will work out in the end, while Raines said that Dziedzic “should pick up the phone and call him.”