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State throws a lifeline to Southport Lanes

A $70,000 grant will help the Lake View business reopen, but its owner said the date depends on progress against the virus.

Southport Lanes sign above the main entrance at 3325 N. Southport Ave in Lake View. Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020.
Owner Steve Soble said Southport Lanes in Lake View intends to reopen when the state allows indoor dining to resume.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Chicago’s Southport Lanes, closed since September because of COVID-19 restrictions, could enjoy a comeback because of a $70,000 state grant its owner called “a life preserver.”

There’s no date for reopening yet, owner Steve Soble said Thursday. But he said the grant will let him catch up on bills and pay forthcoming city licenses to resume operations at 3325 N. Southport Ave.

The distinctive tavern-restaurant-entertainment venue, with its billiard hall and live pinsetters, will reopen for at least limited indoor dining once state rules allow it, Soble said. When will that be? “It all depends on the virus. The good news is that we have the funds to reopen,” he said. “The state grant was basically a life preserver.”

He said he prefers to open only when the entire operation, including the bowling and billiards, can be activated. That time might come in May or June, Soble said,

Those activities have been off-limits at Southport Lanes since the virus forced shutdowns in March. The bar and restaurant reopened during the summer with limited outdoor seating. “We discovered that if you can’t do indoor dining, outdoor seating really doesn’t work for us,” Soble said.

He said he put the business up for sale. “You’ll be shocked to know that no one was interested in buying a restaurant and a bowling alley in a pandemic. So we decided, ‘Let’s try to keep it going,’” Soble said.

Southport Lanes employed about 20 people before the pandemic and hired back about a dozen for its summer business, he said.

The state grant was among 9,000 Business Interruption Grants totaling $275 million awarded to small firms statewide to address impacts from COVID-19. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity said nearly half the money went to restaurants and taverns. Grants to event venues and indoor recreation centers also were prioritized.

Soble said he’s also looking for money in the second round of the federal government’s Payroll Protection Program but isn’t sure of the amount yet. Federal data show the business received from $150,000 to $350,000 during the program’s first round; Soble did not recall the amount.

His upcoming two-year renewal of his city liquor and amusement licenses will set him back around $10,000, Soble said. With the need to keep up with insurance and property taxes, Soble said, “It costs a lot just to keep a business sitting there empty.”

Southport Lanes operates in a building that started life in the early 1900s as a tavern tied to the Schlitz brewery. In the distant past, it’s been a brothel, speakeasy and gambling den. In recent decades, it’s been a respectable gathering spot for the community.

Soble also owns Seven Ten Lanes in Hyde Park, another closed bowling alley. He said he’s in a better fiscal situation there because his landlord, the University of Chicago, has granted concessions. He hopes he can reopen by the summer.