LINCOLN SQUARE — The new Mariano's on Lawrence Avenue hasn't opened yet, but it's already making its presence felt in the community, thanks to a $350,000 donation to neighborhood schools from the project's developers, Barrett and Porto.
"We're going to be a big part of that neighborhood," Gene Porto said. "You sit and talk to people about their concerns."
What he and business partner Tim Barrett heard over and over again was that the schools had capital needs, which dovetailed with the developers' interest in infrastructure.
The result: Ravenswood and McPherson elementary schools will receive $100,000 for their outdoor campus projects, Audubon Elementary will receive $50,000 for its "Field of Dreams," and Waters Elementary will receive $100,000, likely for use toward an outdoor science lab.
Barrett and Porto received $4 million in taxpayer TIF assistance for the Mariano's project.
"For years now, the Audubon community has worked toward the goal of building a safe playground for our school and neighborhood," said Lolita Sereleas, president of Friends of Audubon, the school's fundraising arm.
Sereleas said "the steadfast support" from Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) and Mariano’s is "helping us to turn this dream into a reality."
Shortly after taking office in 2011, Pawar formed Grow47, which links the ward's commercial and residential growth to the health of its neighborhood schools. To that end, he's funneled money from his discretionary budget and Tax Increment Financing dollars to schools, while also seeking outside sources of funding.
In early discussions with Barrett and Porto "I told them how we were organizing Grow47," Pawar said. "They said they wanted to create a community partnership."
For Ravenswood Elementary, the donation comes at a time when the school is focused on turning itself "inside out" to share with the community what happens inside its walls, said Wendy Vasquez, co-chair of Friends of Ravenswood.
The funding will be "used for campus improvements that will invite the neighborhood to be part of the school community," she said. "This is a great example of how private business, parents, school leadership and the community can work together to support neighborhood schools."
Porto, who has three grandchildren enrolled in Chicago Public Schools, is more than familiar with "friends of" groups and the work they do to bring resources to schools.
"We have been so impressed with the requests and the things the parents have been planning," he said of the projects his donation will help fund.
Among those efforts is a proposed outdoor campus at McPherson Elementary, which sits just across the street from the new Mariano's.
Said a thrilled Kim Silver, president of Friends of McPherson: "This partnership will support the work that we are doing to re-imagine the McPherson School campus to be a play place and gathering space for all of us — students, families, neighbors and businesses."