Two big projects were approved by the Portage Redevelopment Commission, but not without a fight.
The commission on Thursday approved $160,000 for design and engineering work to enclose the open-air pavilion near U.S. Steel and $300,000 to secure a matching grant for the new fishing pier and fish cleaning station at the city’s marina.
City Council Vice President Scott Williams, D-3rd, asked for the $160,000 for the study at the open-air pavilion. “This needs to be done regardless of who occupies that building,” he said.
Williams said he plans to ask the Park Board to assist with funding the renovations at the building but wants the study done so he can provide more accurate estimates to the board. “We’ve got to share something concrete with the Park Board,” he said.
His interest in the building is potential future use of a portion of it for Craftsman Community Maker Labs of Indiana, a new nonprofit that hopes to open a makerspace in a portion of the building.
The pavilion is open to the public for rentals, but there are few takers.
Mayor Sue Lynch said she knew from the day the pavilion opened that it wasn’t going to work well. The wind was blowing tablecloths off the tables.
“We do have issues in using it as is,” Park Superintendent Dyan Leto said. “It’s hard to rent even in the heart of summer because it’s so cold and windy in that area.”
“We spent $1.5 million for a building that’s unusable,” Councilman and RDC member Collin Czilli, D-5th, said.
RDC member Greg Lach, however, didn’t see the urgency of spending the money for the study. What if the commission has the study done but it isn’t a priority, he asked.
A previous administration had the former Midwest Steel training center turned into an open-air pavilion. “The way the project was done, it was thrust upon the parks,” Lach said. He wanted to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
But if the makerspace is created, the Park Board would have at least some revenue from the building, commission member Allen Ekdahl said.
The commission owns the property.
“It can’t be used now, and we might not enclose it for two to three years,” Czilli said.
Lach cast the sole vote against the study.
Ekdahl voted against the $300,000 for the fishing pier and fish cleaning station at the marina.
“We looked around for every grant we could,” Port Authority member Steve Nelson said, and found a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant that will pay 75% of the cost of the $1.2 million for the projects. The city’s share is $300,000.
“This is going to be a community fishing pier,” he said, a point emphasized by others during the meeting.
Ekdahl said the Port Authority’s budget is funded by user fees, primarily dock rentals. Replacing the docks should be a higher priority, he said. Three years ago, Ekdahl’s foot went through boards on a dock Ekdahl rented.
“We’re looking at about $3 million in dock replacement coming down the road,” Nelson said. “We’re trying to build the funds to do that.”
“It’s a public marina. It’s an asset for the public,” Czilli said.
The city shouldn’t lose the federal money for the new projects, Czilli said. “It’s not like we can take this money and magically divert it.”
“There aren’t grants out there to repair existing docks,” Czilli said.
The commission also approved a contract with HWC for engineering and design work downtown. That includes extending Vivian and Main streets, adding infrastructure and additional parking, plus improving pedestrian access.
Another contract approved by the commission involves extending Burns Parkway to the South Shore Line parking lot south of U.S. 12.
Doug Ross is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.