Portage Theater has a new owner, movie future remains uncertain

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Portage Theater

Portage Theater (September 6, 2012)

After months of uncertainty, the Portage Theater is under new ownership. The current tenants who run and manage the cinema received a letter Wednesday night from an attorney representing the new owner informing them of the change, effective Sept. 1.

The building (which also includes apartments and storefront space) was sold to a land trust, which means the identity of the new owner is currently anonymous. One likely possibility is Congress Theater owner Erineo “Eddie” Carranza, who informed the Tribune last week that “we have submitted a bid” on the building. Carranza is also listed as the manager of Portage "ENMV000004430">Management Company (a registered LLC) that now runs the building.

News of the sale comes after a prolonged period of anxiety for both the cinema and its patrons. Earlier this year, the Chicago Tabernacle made an offer of $2.5 million to purchase the building and transform it into a church. Alderman John Arena, 45th, and community groups fought the sale in the hopes of keeping the movie theater as a key destination of the Six Corners entertainment district in Portage Park.

At the same time, a group of investors led by David Dziedzic, who is part of the cinema’s current management team, made an informal offer on the building that matched the church’s bid, one that would ensure that the venue would remain a movie theater. Dziedzic was under the impression that he had a verbal agreement with the owner. “All we need to do was put it to ink,” he said. “We thought it was done.”

The church ultimately abandoned its bid in July, and shortly thereafter a competing offer (reportedly from Carranza) was put on the table for $2.7 million.

Under the new ownership and Carranza’s management, it is unclear if the venue will remain a movie theater or be transformed into a full-time music venue — or operate as both a cinema and something else. Dziedzic said he met with Carranza and others last month who presented a plan for a music venue “that said they would keep the cinema (running) as well — but maybe remove all the seats. And I don’t see how that would work.” (Carranza did not respond to the Tribune’s request for comment.)

The current tenants have a lease through 2015, however they acknowledge there is some back rent that has not been paid — an issue that might give the new owner legal recourse to pursue eviction. As of now, no decisions have been made.

“They’re going to be a bona fide, genuine neighbor and they want participate in a meaningful way in this community,” said attorney Thomas R. Raines, who represents the new owner. “They don’t know what the plans are (yet), they just closed (on the sale) on Friday. They are reviewing all the leases and all their options to try to figure out the best way to maximize the value of this property — what the highest and best use is, and how that would fit best with the community. They’re going to meet with community groups, they’re going to meet with the alderman, they’re going to meet with all the current tenants.”

Built in 1920, the Portage Theater seats around 1,300 and is one of Chicago’s oldest movie houses. Since 2006 it has been run as an art-house cinema under the day-to-day management of Dennis Wolkowicz, coordinator of the long-running Silent Summer Film Festival. The movie theater is also home to a classic film series programmed by the Northwest Chicago Film Society every Wednesday.

nmetz@tribune.com

Twitter @NinaMetzNews

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