Portage may be known for their boats (at the Harbor), Bass (Pro Shops) and big screen (at the Portage IMAX), but in just a day’s time, visitors (and residents, too) will be able to find much more than the three B’s. The city is packed with hidden gems and phenomenal people.
“The best asset in Portage is our people,” Mayor James Snyder said. “We have a lot of amazing people in a very diverse community. Portage is unique in that it has a large union labor work force comprised of hard-working, blue-collar people that go to work everyday and come home and enjoy time with their families.”
Small business, the mayor says, help make up that “blue-collar” reputation the city has.
“Everybody works hard for their money. The people of Portage are very prudent and want their leadership to be the same way,” Snyder said. “The small business community helps reflect that. They support our people, who are honest and hard working they really compliment each other more than anything.”
Reeder’s Auto Service Center has embodied small business success in Portage for more than a half-century now, and according to office manager Mike Liesch, the shop is getting “busier and busier all the time.”
“It really does seem like we get busier every day,” said Liesch, who noted the particularly rough 2014 winter had business booming through those months as well.
“We’ve been here for a long time, people like us and they trust us with their cars,” added Liesch, who has worked at Reeder’s for 10 years.
Reeder’s has been at their current location at 6436 Central Ave. since 1994 when the Reeder family owned Amoco down the road and wanted to set up an auto service center. Now, Reeder’s is the place to go for “pretty much anything auto related” outside of body work.
“At least 75 to 80 percent of our customers are return customers,” Liesch said. A native of Portage now living in nearby Valparaiso, Liesch echoes Snyder’s comments on the people of Portage.
“There are great people in Portage, and that’s why the community keeps growing,” he said. “It has grown so much since I was little.”
Central Avenue has a mini “small business corridor” near Airport Road with a number of local shops making up the area. Twice Is Nice, a consignment shop adjacent to Reeder’s, has been in business for 15 years. Employees call it an “upscale, resale boutique.”
They too have “a lot of repeat customers,” according to Debbie Ring and owner Monica Moseley.
“We like to make things affordable, so as to if you can find something for $200 elsewhere, we are likely able to have it for $100,” Moseley said. “Every customer is valuable, they are the biggest reason for our success.”
Rhame & Elwood: Attorneys at Law takes pride in their Portage roots. Ken Elwood has been coaching youth sports in the area for more than two decades.
“Our firm and our members have had a positive impact on the youth in the community,” said Elwood, who runs the Portage Tribe 9-under to 13-under travel baseball teams. “From a business standpoint, we are a hometown law firm with clients that are blue-collar and hard-working.”
From end to end, Portage is a great city. Snyder shows that through the “four corners” of the city limits. Up north, there is West Beach, which was recently named one of the top five inland beaches for families across the nation by Parents Magazine and the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk, where visitors can spend time in the National Park, head to the beach or walk out on the water to get nice views of the dunes or fish.
“The riverwalk area used to be a sewer treatment facility for U.S. steel, and now it is a park,” Snyder said. “That really is the Indiana example of reclaiming our lakefront.”
On the eastern edge of the city, the Port of Indiana is the “nation’s largest most successful inland port,” the Mayor said. Bordering County Line Orchard to the west, the interesting dynamic continues on the south with the Portage IMAX movie theater and a developing U.S. Route 6, which features not only chain stores like Wal-Mart and Meijer, but popular eateries like Texas Roadhouse and Firehouse Subs and Harbor Buick GMC, one of the best car dealerships in Northwest Indiana.
Brendan Clancy, Portage Township trustee, says U.S. 6 is “probably going to look like Merrillville in a few years” with the increase in development at that corridor.
Firehouse Subs, open since July of 2013, is located within walking distance of the IMAX, making it a popular stop for visits from throughout the region looking for the finest theater experience in the area.
The sub shop, which was founded by fire fighters, has become a popular lunch spot due to their “big portions, high quality meats and friendly atmosphere,” owner Jeff Walsworth says.
“My favorite is the beef and cheddar briscuit - that is delicious,” Walsworth said. “Our customers like quality beef, and they have seemed to accept us real well. This is a great place to do business and we are happy to be here.”
Heading back north from U.S. 6, Portage is home to the most parkland per capita than any city in Indiana.
“We have some of the coolest bike trails and Woodland Park is beautiful,” Snyder said.
Woodland Park is the ideal spot to bring your dog, spend time with the kids at the playground, host a game of softball or relax enjoy nature through the mostly wooded area.
The skating ramp at the park is “the best mini ramp in Northwest Indiana,” according to Charles Matheny, a longtime Portage resident who attended Willowcreek Middle School and Portage High School.
“I’ve always been into skating. That, and photography, are my favorite hobbies,” said Matheny, who says he comes to the ramp “almost every day.”
“It’s the only place I hang out,” he said. “It’s also the best place to come for free. If you can afford a skateboard or scooter, this is the spot.”
Over the last three years, Clancy said Portage Township (which includes South Haven and Ogden Dunes) has went from “worst to first” when it comes to parks.
“It’s neat to see the turnaround - we have invested so much into the parks and now have a park foundation and a park board,” he said. “We’ve installed new picnic shelters and a popular fishing pier at Salt Creek.”
Originally from Chicago, Clancy (who was recently named Indiana Trustee of the Year) moved to Portage 13 years ago because he “fell in love with the city” and wanted to raise his family here. Since then, he has been involved politically - serving one term on both the Portage City Council and is currently running unopposed for re-election as the Portage Township trustee. He praises the Bonner Senior Center as “a great asset with fantastic programs and facilities” and the improvements seen at the city’s cemeteries over the past two years.
“We are proud of what we’ve done there and will be looking to expand McCool cemetery soon,” he said. “I’d like to see the city start to improve things in the downtown area as Route 6 has been coming along well.”
Downtown Portage is centered along Central Avenue and Willowcreek Road, two of the city’s main thoroughfares. But the city also benefits from traffic on Interstate 94, which has access to Ameriplex Drive - a commercial corridor that not only is home to the highly visible Bass Pro Shops, but a number of businesses that employ local residents.
“Holladay (Properties) has done such a good job of fixing that up with some amazing companies that compliment our workforce and people,” Snyder said. “Bass Pro Shops is something we all get to brag about. It has put us on the map nationally.”
Since February of 2007, Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World has been a 135,000+ square foot shop that has more than 50,000 products to serve their customers needs, general manager Jim Osborn said.
“We also have a full service boat dealership and one of the best seafood restaurants in the region,” Osborn said.
While the bass shop is a hard-to-miss building, if you drive north from Ameriplex to Highway 20 and take that to County Line Road, you will find one of Snyder’s favorite hidden gems.
“My family and I love to go to the Depot Dog on County Line Road,” the Mayor said. “You get a wonderful hot dog and can sit out under the bird feeders and watch the birds under a picnic table.”
Nearby Stagecoach Road is a “cool, meandering road that has a good dose of deer,” Snyder added.
“The kids and I like to go fishing, get a depot dog and meander down Stagecoach Road.”
Nativity Fest, an annual Parish Festival held at Nativity Of Our Savior Parish every year during the second weekend of July, is “a great time to see friends,” said Nancy Simpson, office manager at the Greater Portage Chamber of Commerce. Simpson says her favorite things about Portage are the “school system, small town feel and lakefront.”
Snyder says he goes to Nativity Fest every year to “get a taco and take the kids on the rides.”
The mayor credits much of the city’s success to their top-of-the-line school system. “The schools are paramount to the city’s success,” he said. “Ailing school system destroy community - overachieving ones like ours receive honors in every grade. We have quality parents, teachers and students. I truly believe they are our best sales force.”
Students at Portage elementary schools have the unique chance to get familiar with local government at a young age. Snyder said his favorite event of the year is when second graders visit City Hall.
“Every second grader in the city visits City Hall,” he said. “We always do a mock city council meeting for them too and it’s a lot of fun.”
Jen Sass, associate principal at Portage High School who has been promoted to principal for the upcoming 2014-15 school year, says that in her four years at PHS, she has noticed a high degree of interest from the parents.
“They are all very interested and supportive of our school and understanding when things do not go their way,” Sass said. “I always love Homecoming week and the parade, when the entire community comes out to support the kids.”
The school has a tight relationship with the Portage Township YMCA, Portage Police Department and Boys and Girls Clubs of Porter County - all of which do a phenomenal job of promoting the youth of Portage.
When she moved to Portage after 23 years as a teacher in La Porte, Sass said that although she did not know anyone right off the bat, she “fit in right away.”
“This is a standout district,” she said. “The way Portage looks at students is amazing. We help kids from every angle, and I don’t ever see myself leaving.”
Sass says the best place to visit in the city is the Marina, which she calls “a beautiful place.”
With a picture of a boat on the city logo, no visit to Portage would be complete without seeing a boat in person, and the Portage Public Marina is the spot to do just that during boating season (April 1 to October 31).
“We are a family friendly marina and pets are also welcome,” Harbormaster Barb Lusco said. “Access to Lake Michigan is a nice 15 minute trip down Burns Waterway. Our marina facility offers launch ramps, restrooms, showers, pump outs, ice, snacks, and soda. We are a few minutes from the Portage Lakefront park, which is a gem and should not be missed.”
The Marina has 203 slips and another 20 at the yacht club. They can accommodate boats ranging in size from 20 feet and under to over 44 feet.
This year, the Marina looks forward to the installation of the final dock and the addition of WIFI service for their slip renters.
“Come down to the marina; we’d be happy to show you around,” Lusco said. “We are proud of our facility and very proud of the city by the lake that we call home. Portage: where people, progress, and parks combine to make a recreational destination!”
Serving with pride
The framework of Portage may be best exemplified through the Portage Fire Department, whose mission statement states they “serve with pride through progressive training of our members and educating citizens.”
Fire Chief Tom Fieffer indicates that the Department has 62 career firefighters, with three shifts of 19 personnel a shift at three stations.
“We staff two ambulances we call rescues, two engines, one aerial, and one chief officer every day,” Fieffer said.
Clancy praises the South Haven Fire Department, which regularly backs up Portage.
“They are in effect their fourth station and do a great job in supporting them,” Clancy said. “They serve the unincorporated area and have been pro-active in upgrading their equipment. I’m real excited about their future.”
The Best of Portage
Portage Public Marina, 1200 Marina Way
Portage IMAX, 6550 American Way
Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk, Riverwalk Dr.
Woodland Park, 2100 Willowcreek Rd.
Ogden Dunes Beach, Shore Drive
Texas Roadhouse, 6130 U.S. 6 Ranked No. 1 on tripadvisor.com - Reviewer from the United Kingdom states: “We only stopped for a small bite to eat at the end of a long days Road Trip. The waitress was absolutely great and pandered to our every need. We wanted just appetisers and not main meals, we wanted a bottle of wine and not glasses and we wanted to order piecemeal and she obliged. The onion petal was delicious. Would definitely recommend this restaurant.” Reviewer from Valpo states: “The staff here are great. The food is delicious. Even when it's busy, the wait isn't long. We like the music and the dancing. The dinner rolls are nice and hot. The steak is cooked perfectly. The sweet tea is delicious too.”
Firehouse Subs, 6536 U.S. 6
Fuji, 5942 U.S. 6
Cappos, 6656 U.S. 6
Schoops Restaurant, 3285 Willowcreek Rd.
Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, 6200 U.S. 6
Depot Hot Dogs, 5016 Melton Rd.
Portage High School, 6450 U.S. 6
Willowcreek Middle School, 5962 Central Ave.
William Fegely Middle School, 5384 Stone Ave.
Crisman Elementary School, 6161 Old Porter Road
Nativity Of Our Savior School, 2929 Willowcreek Rd.
George L. Myers Elementary School, 3100 Willowdale Rd.
Central Elementary School, 2825 Russell St.
Wallace Aylesworth Elementary School, 5910 Central Ave.
South Haven Elementary School, 395 Midway Drive
Rowena Kyle Elementary School, 2701 Hamstrom Rd.
Jones Elementary School, 2374 McCool Rd.
We asked you:
We posed a question on the PortageLife.com Facebook page earlier this month seeking what Portage residents like the most about their city. Here are some of the responses:
“The lake” - Teri Luna
“Local businesses support community initiatives” - Jan Zurek
“The pride of Portage - the Portage High School marching band” - Tiburon Gutierrez
“Huge variety of restaurants to choose from, the Portage IMAX, the beach, the awesome events they host (including Portage Township Summer Fest and Nativity Fest), tons of parks (Imagination Glen, Woodland Park, etc.), awesome schools, and most importantly the great music that's centered in this city, including 4 Us Cool Kids! They've gotten pretty popular in the area!” - R.C. Brown
“Lots of nice houses on the lakefront in Ogden Dunes” - Brendan Clancy