Portage is changing, mostly for the better.
On this, Mayor Rick Dodd and Steve Sobiek, the city’s director of business development and planning, are in agreement.
However, at Wednesday’s monthly meeting of the Women’s Civic League of Portage, Dodd noted that Sobiek’s outlook is just a bit more upbeat than his.
Sobiek touted recent economic development milestones and an upturn in the number of building permits that the city issued last year — 274, which Sobiek characterized as an “incredible” improvement over the last few recession-ridden years.
“In the last couple of years,” Sobiek told the approximately 50 women in attendance at Dino’s Restaurant, “you have to have noticed a difference in the city of Portage.”
True, Dodd acknowledged.
However, he said, challenges remain, particularly in finding sufficient tax revenue to pay for all the infrastructure improvements that residents want and need.
“I’m not going to be quite as enthusiastic as Steve,” he said, “even though we are making a lot of headway in our development.”
Civic League President Betty Kutzke said Dodd and Sobiek were invited to address the group because it had been a while since anyone had updated Civic League members about what’s going on in Portage.
“Much in the tradition of our founder, Zona Gale, Civic League was founded to keep us informed about the world around us,” she said.
Sobiek said the city is bouncing back from the recession that first reared its head in about 2008.
In the last years of the century’s first decade, he said, the city experienced losses in its business base, including the 2014 closure of Kmart and Staples.
But the November 2016 opening of the Aldi grocery store is just one sign of an economic resurgence, he said.
Other positive signs that Sobiek cited include:
- Portage’s emerging identity as a center for plastics manufacturing.
- Partnerships with local organizations to create new amenities, such as the Edward and June Lenz Charitable Trust’s participation in improving park facilities; the efforts of the Portage Family Skate Park to create a venue designed for skaters and the Portage Service Club Association’s leadership in completing the splash pad in 2013, along with its current efforts to build a performance pavilion in Pauquette Park.
- An uptick in housing starts – although Sobiek foresees that “smaller-footprint” housing for older people will be more predominant, in the coming years, than single-family homes.
Dodd said the city had six new housing starts in 2017, well up from just one in 2008.
Even a little building boom, Dodd said, results in more revenue, because state-imposed levy limits are set up so that cities can increase their property tax revenue from year to year only in proportion to the construction of new, taxable structures.
However, the city still has to borrow most of the money it uses for capital projects, including street work and the accompanying replacement of old water and sewer pipes.
“When you’re the third-oldest city in the state,” Dodd said, “you have the third-oldest infrastructure.”
When one audience member asked what the city can do about the annoyance of large trucks driving on Highway 33 through downtown Portage, Dodd responded that, because it’s a state highway, there’s little the city can do as long as the state doesn’t have money to build a bypass.
City Councilwoman Rita Maass suggested being careful what one wishes for. If trucks should bypass Portage’s downtown, she said, so might would-be visitors and customers.
“There are risks that people won’t stop and try to see some of the amenities we have to offer,” she said.
Several attendees also expressed wishes for additions to Portage, such as a big-box home improvement store, a senior citizens center or a community center.
When Dodd’s wife, Pam Dodd, asked whether an ad hoc citizens committee could be formed to brainstorm ideas for a city center – including creative ways to pay for it – the mayor responded that this can be done, although he cautioned against making any wish list too big, elaborate or expensive.
And, citing the city’s Historic Preservation Commission as a prime example, Dodd called on community members to step forward and get involved in the city, instead of just complaining on social media.
“It’s hard to find people who want to serve on those committees,” he said.