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Commentary: With the neighborhood so opposed, why would Adventure Church want to buy the Tower Theatre?

The Tower Theatre church story doesn’t add up for me. And not just in terms of dollars and cents. I can’t figure out why Adventure Church is so gung-ho about buying this particular building. Is the motive selflessness or pride? Compassion or calculation? Well intentioned expansionism or premeditated assault on the enemy’s beachhead?

I’m confused when I look at how this story unfolded and what it’s become: a business deal made in the shadows that exploded into one of the biggest Fresno land-use controversies in years.


Related story: MORE THAN 2,100 PEOPLE AND BUSINESSES DECLARE: TOWER THEATRE SHOULDN’T BE OWNED BY A CHURCH
And: AS ‘SAVE THE TOWER’ FOLKS GEAR UP FOR A PITCHED BATTLE, THEY ASK YOU TO SIGN ANOTHER LETTER OF DISSENT

Two major media characters in the narrative have emerged: the awkwardly enigmatic and publicity-shy Laurence Abbate, who inherited the theater property (along with his siblings) and sold it very quietly to Adventure Church; and Pastor Anthony Flores, as smooth in his TV sound bytes as the silk lining in a collection plate, who is spreading the Word on what a great deal it is for all concerned. Together they form an odd-fellows partnership of reticence and salesmanship.

As legal battles over the close of escrow continue, I can’t get inside the heads of either of these men. Still, I want to know why things are, beyond the platitudes.

If we’re talking about motives, there are two obvious ones to consider.

Money is the first, of course. It’s the baseline for Americans. We’re bred in this country to praise a profit.

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Many of us also praise prophets, which is the other obvious motivation.

Let’s start with Money. Could financial gain be driving the Tower Theatre deal?

What about the risks?

I can think of better investments than a medium-sized Art Deco-style performance venue with historic-landmark maintenance needs, no way to fly in scenery and such little dressing-room space that most big performance groups just change outside.

Yes, the Tower Theatre was on the real-estate market for a while with apparently no acceptable offers. But did anyone try to rouse community involvement in promoting the sale? Keeping the theater an inclusive performing-arts venue matters to a lot of people. It might have taken a solid public-relations effort to make that happen, but there are plenty in the Save the Tower coalition whom I’m sure would have stepped forward to get the word out.

From the Abbate family’s point of view, a sale to the highest bidder could be seen as the inevitable financial move. But from the church’s perspective, it seems riskier. What if escrow closes and the city doubles down that a church can’t operate there because of current zoning regulations? If that happens, the property could potentially be worthless for the church, practically speaking. Another (very real) financial risk: lawsuits. They’re expensive. On Wednesday, a judge issued a restraining order temporarily blocking the final sale, a decision that focused on the Sequoia Brewing Company property. (We still don’t know if the lawsuit will impact the theater building itself in the long run.) Legal entanglements mean attorney fees.

 

Views of the Tower protests, which are now in the eighth week.

To mitigate the risks, the church is banking heavily on a federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, as sort of a zoning-regulation blank check to do anything it wants.

It might not be that easy, however, especially with a Biden Administration Justice Department. With any law, interpretation is required. A lot depends on the context, the mitigating circumstances and how the arguments get made in court. The law prohibits zoning and landmarking laws that “substantially burden the religious exercise of churches or other religious assemblies.” But it also doesn’t prohibit zoning in general.


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There are many (so many!) tracts of land in Fresno that accommodate houses of worship. Does telling Adventure Church it can’t move into one specific location (that just happens to anchor the city’s premier live entertainment district) create a substantial burden when so many options are available? Some prior cases involving the religious land use act have focused on minority religions that got a bum deal from discriminatory cities. Others have involved Christian churches that purchased land specifically to build, only to have the zoning changed afterward. In this case, Adventure Church is buying the property fully aware of potential zoning conflicts. That seems relevant.

Another reason I’m suspicious about the money angle: As this controversy has unfolded, I haven’t heard much talk (actually, any talk) about the Save Our Stages federal relief act, which provides a whopping $15 billion to help arts organizations survive the pandemic. Furthermore, $10 billion (and, yes, that’s with a B, a letter not often associated with arts funding) of that money is earmarked for music-oriented community venues, which seems to fit the Tower to a T. The Small Business Administration will cover six months of payroll and costs including rent, utilities and maintenance.

Wouldn’t seeking relief under this act be a viable alternative to selling the theater to a church?

Who is the angel investor?

Finally, under our Money column, we come to the mystery of the “angel investor.”

This one has been a head-scratcher: How can a scrappy storefront church, even a growing one, afford an entire city block that includes a historical landmark theater and prime space for four restaurants? That kind of real estate doesn’t come cheap. The property was listed for $6.5 million.

Flores told GV Wire that the church received a bank loan, and a “generous financial angel investor” helped with the purchase.

I don’t believe that any of the seraphim know how to use Paypal, so this investor would have to be human — and loaded. I’d love to know who it is and what the exact terms of the sale are. What is the actual price? How much is the loan? How much did the investor contribute?

Most important, was the investor’s contribution contingent on the church buying the Tower Theatre? Or could Adventure Church use the money to buy or build a church anywhere? And, if this offer just applies to the Tower Theatre, then why?

You might ask why a private transaction is any of our business. One reason is public relations. The local community has roared its disapproval. Transparency would be helpful. And if the actual price is far below market value, that seems relevant to the community discussion.

An even more compelling reason it’s important to know: The investor will get a big tax break for making a charitable contribution — meaning that, ultimately, taxpayers are subsidizing the transaction.

Unfortunately, there’s little chance of uncovering the name of the “angel.” (See Trump, Donald, Taxes.) And the IRS is notoriously tight-lipped about such things, even if the U.S. Supreme Court seems to be coming around (see Trump, Donald, Taxes, New York, He’s Screwed).

A proxy battle in the culture wars?

Now let’s turn our attention to the Religion motive.

Again, it’s complicated. Religion can do worthwhile things, but it can also be mean and greedy. Religion can disappoint. Religion can be reckless in the company it keeps. Religion is sometimes the party guest who fools around with Money in your parents’ bedroom at the high school rager you throw when they’re out of town.

If it’s a case of saving souls, it seems as if there are many spaces in Fresno more suitable to turn into a church, especially south of Shaw Avenue.

The religion angle only works, I think, if some powerful, culture-war puppeteer is pulling the strings. An evangelical church swooping in and nabbing the Tower would be akin to the Republican Party buying the Castro Theatre in San Francisco and transforming it into an indoor shooting range. Such a feat would, I admit, be a choice bit of Take That, Liberals. But is it $6.5 million worth of taunt? Wouldn’t that money be better spent, say, on suppressing voter rights?

Still, I find this culture-war theory possible, especially considering the polarized times in which we live. Social media and the nationalization of cultural clashes make it easier for local groups to attract emotional and financial support from around the country and world. The Save the Tower group is running a successful GoFundMe effort that to date has raised $40,000 for legal expenses. It’s easy to see the church doing the same. One appearance on “Hannity,” a tweet from Sarah Palin, a feature on Newsmax — you’d pay for all the lawyers you’d need. The MAGA counter-protestors who have been fixtures at Save the Tower’s weekly demonstrations would eat it up.

Rest in peace, Rush. Huh?

What other signs lead to the culture wars?

Hmm. How about a message eulogizing Rush Limbaugh posted on the theater itself?

The Fools Collaborative / Facebook

Many Tower District residents were incensed at a message lauding Rush Limbaugh posted on the theater marquee.

No one fessed up at first to putting it there. But everyone knew that unless there are merry bands of requiem-humming vandals with marquee letters in their pockets roaming through the Tower District, there were only two possible culprits: the current owner; or the future owner. The church quickly denied it had anything to do with placing the message. Laurence Abbate eventually told Diana Marcum of the Los Angeles Times that he was responsible.

There are many reasons why putting up a message eulogizing Mr. Limbaugh’s death was not a very bright idea, but I’ll give you just the first two: “R.I.P” should only be used in children’s Halloween party invitations; and Thou Shalt Not revere a noted anti-gay individual when you are involved in a very public and heated debate with the local LGBTQ community.

Besides, I’ve never noticed the Tower marking the deaths of 1) famous jazz musicians; 2) actors/actresses; 3) local luminaries; 4) Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Just saying.

Finally, under the Religion column, let me get a little preachy. Cities need diverse neighborhoods. Fresno needs a secular entertainment district where the arts are feted, where liberalism isn’t taunted, where legal diversions (alcohol, cannabis, dancing) are highlighted, where inclusivity in terms of the LGBTQ community is celebrated. Drive around many parts of Fresno and it seems as if there is a church or other religious institution on every corner.

When we’re pitching the pluses of Fresno to the outside world, however, here’s a funny thing: We don’t often emphasize the abundance-of-churches angle. The Fresno County Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website trumpets culture and nightlife, along with photos of a thriving Tower District. When Fresno State brings in a professor candidate to interview, does the search committee take the applicant on a tour of all the major churches in town? Probably not. An almost guaranteed stop on the tour, however, is the Tower District.

Will Adventure Church allow an explicit gay film?

Community activists have legitimate concerns at losing the Tower Theatre’s secular standing. For those who scoff at the culture-war idea and maintain that ownership of the theater by a conservative religious institution will have absolutely no impact on programming or the off-kilter vibe of the Tower District, I’d like to know:

Would the church allow an NC-17 film with LGBTQ/non-binary scenes on the Tower screen? How about a documentary titled “God is Dead”? A play in which a prominent evangelical pastor commits heinous crimes? A touring version of the off-Broadway show “Puppetry of the Penis”? (Yes, that’s a real show.)

We’re told that Tower Theatre Productions, a separate entity, will continue to handle the theater’s bookings. But won’t the church be the owner, with ultimate veto power?

On the other hand …

Here’s just one more theory before I chuck all this into my head’s “My Brain Hurts” isolation cell and watch an episode of “Ted Lasso.” In this scenario, there’s no brilliant financial scheme. No plot to sanitize the Tower District. No razor-sharp interpretation of zoning case law. No grand culture-war battle plan.

It’s all just a bad idea that started in secret as either a last resort or offer that couldn’t be refused. Then it got bigger. It went public. The media got involved. Escrow thickened the plot. The community rallied against it. Lawsuits were filed. Provocative statements were exchanged.

And there’s no backing down now.

Of all my theories, this is the one I might like the best. Like most simplest explanations, it involves snippets of all the other motives: money; religion; culture war; bluster. (Lots of bluster.) But no grand plan or conspiracy. Just petitions, restraining orders, weekly protests, reporters posting breaking news updates and the sense of a neighborhood in turmoil.

With this scenario, it’s OK to say: This sale isn’t a good fit. There are plenty of other places for Adventure Church to do its thing. A city and its residents have the right to provide for diversity. A city and its residents have the right to zone.

The Tower District is crucial to this city. And a secular, welcoming Tower Theatre is crucial to the district. It’s worth fighting for. If this adventure turns ugly, the loss will be tremendous.


 


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (13)

  • Steph

    Brilliant!. This is the article we need right now. No inherent bias but an eloquent statement of the facts and they reasonably minded bit of conjecture by the one person in the community who probably knows the art better than anyone.

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    • Dennis Robert Newman

      What about Antifa out at the protests Attacking independent journalists..and inciting Violence like they did against the Oreo express.. By All means necessary ? Right…the leftist Scum will learn the hard way…you insight violence and it will come..!

      reply
  • David Mirhadi

    Great piece of writing, Mr. Munro. I’ve followed your writing for decades. You never fail to hit a home run.

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  • Anjali Kapoor-Davis

    Thank you Donald for continuing to keep us updated and digging into this situation. I am curious about the financial aspect, notably taxes or the lack of taxes that churches pay. How this impacts the the City of Fresno and the recovery from the last year is imperative. One other financial thought/question is if the sale goes through and the church allows events /concerts etc. to take place, they are making money off the shows and not paying taxes, correct? I honestly don’t the answer and I’m wondering if you could shed some light on it.

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  • Anna M Martinez

    What a fascinating summary. Great read!

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  • Harry Houck

    Thank you for a balanced and factual view of the situation. Perhaps Stockton may have some background on Pastor Flores.

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  • Jim Mendez

    THANK YOU AGAIN DON MUNRO. Great piece.

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  • Tina

    Excellent thinking points. However, I recently watched the church’s video on their YouTube channel (out of morbid curiosity) called “The Moment of our Movement”…and starting about minute 23 and all the way through to his closing statements (which he made a point to come on very strong with) he makes it pretty damn clear that he feels this is his fight against evil and he is NOT backing down. It’s disheartening.

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  • Richard Stutsman

    Knew nothing about this controversy UP TO NOW. Well written, well researched, views from top,sides and bottom. Let’s hope the bottom view looses out. Thank you for real journalism.

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  • Noelle

    Evangelicals are ruining America. If this sale completes…evangelicals will sadly take the tower district down the plug hole with them. How can the general population and leaders of Fresno not see that losing an iconic building (symbol of creativity, culture and open minded thinking to a church – A CHURCH for god’s sake) would not be a loss to the city’s fabric then you deserve the empty cultural void that will no doubt be left in the wake of its sale. The last thing Fresno needs is an evangelical church in the beating heart of its creative, musically vibrant, yes a little seedy, hippy cool, geeky, progressive, fabulously colorful tower district. Fresno is already SO BORING (oh look..it’s another shopping, track house, church or gated community development) so if the Tower Theatre is lost to yet another church then the neighborhood spark will die. There are cool places in the world that support their ‘tower district’ equivalents – why can’t all Fresnan’s support theirs? it seems there is an agenda beyond financial here (hence the Rush requiem) and the whole lack of transparency thing too….It’s just gross. Thank you for a well written, thought provoking, emotion stirring article. I hope the sale falls through as it rightly should and Fresno keeps it spark. Make/Keep Fresno less boring/less evangelical!!!

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  • Jackie Ryle

    Thank you, Donald, for your always insightful, well researched and informative overview. I always so appreciate the integrity of your work. You lay out the facts and offer more than one lens. This is beautifully and expertly crafted. The whole thing breaks my heart. It is somehow representative of larger society in terms of communication, lack of transparency and polarization.

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  • Edith Barnette

    Totally agree with all above comments. As always, your commentary is precise, well thought out, and truthful. Thanks for your excellent situational controversy summarization and support for keeping the Tower Theatre in its historical glory.

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  • Ernesto Williams

    I live in Lisbon, Portugal. I was born in Fresno 78 years ago; was raised and educated there until I left in 1967. The Tower district was, is and will continue to be the center of Fresno’s, authentic, sophisticated urban culture. From Weston Rouge’s Art studio and frame shop — across the street from the Tower Theatre — to lectures and traveling shows coming in from L.A. and S.F. — including the greatest jazz and solo concertizing musicians from around the world — to the magnificent movies of the 50s and the 60s — The Tower Theatre was El Faro, the Lighthouse, the Beacon of public (often stimulatingly controversial) culture. Fight for it ! ! ! !

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