Updated: Fresno City Council approves measure to buy the Tower Theatre

UPDATE 7 p.m. April 21: The Fresno City Council voted 4-3 to buy the Tower Theatre for $6.5 million. More details: [Fresno Bee] [ABC-30] [GV Wire]

After 15 months of protests, obfuscations, legal wrangling, religious hypocrisy, scary Proud Boys, uplifting community activism, blatant homophobia and some of the meanest Facebook messages you can imagine, a major turning point in the Tower Theatre controversy may come at Thursday’s Fresno City Council meeting.

That’s when we’ll learn whether the city will attempt to buy the theater. If it does, that will mean Adventure Church can’t.

I’ll weigh in with some thoughts in a moment. But first, some background:

The proposal is complicated. On Monday, The Bee’s Brianna Calix and ABC-30’s Corin Hoggard filled us in on the details over the past couple of days. As Hoggard explained: “The city will pay the appraised value of $6.5 million and sell the Sequoia property to its owners for $1.2 million minus the amount it’s already spent on improvements and lawsuits. The city will also assume responsibility for any lawsuits against the Tower Theatre ownership and/or Sequoia Brewing.”


Calix wrote: “The city council also will vote to establish the preservation of the theater and its historical uses for public benefit so it will remain a community and cultural arts resource. The vote also will give direction to preserve the interior and exterior historical characteristics and features and protect community access rights.”

If the council approves the very complicated proposal, it won’t be the end of the story for the Tower District. Adventure Church has already said it will sue the city if this goes through. (It’s already suing the theater owner for breach of contract.) But the vote would be a big step in that direction.

The city plan is supported by the organizations that have been protesting the sale of the theater to the church.

“I’d say I’m 99.99% on board,” says Jaguar Bennett of the Save the Tower Theatre coalition. “Anything that preserves the Tower Theatre as a working theater that supports the whole community is a desirable outcome.”


But opponents also express caution about the plan, particularly in terms of how the city would run the theater.

“I’d say we’re all in favor of city acquisition but we’re still super cautious about what it all means,” says Haley White of The Fools Collaborative. “There are a lot of unknowns and a lot of compromises we’re hearing about that don’t sound particularly promising. But, one step at a time. We support the acquisition and then we’ll continue to hold the city accountable and continue to demand transparency (even as the city continues to keep citizens from their rights to due process).”

Bennett adds that the community should have a say in how the theater is operated under city ownership.

“I believe the Tower Theatre should be placed under the management of a Fresno-based arts nonprofit, not some random promotions company from Los Angeles.”

Some thoughts

I’m very much in favor of keeping the Tower Theatre in secular hands. And I am so tired of Adventure Church’s macho-religious swagger. But I need to know more about some of the specifics of the city plan. I’d like to make a couple of points before Thursday’s council meeting:


1. The city of Fresno does not have a strong record when it comes to running theaters.

This worries me when it comes to the Tower.

Two examples: The Fresno Veterans Memorial Auditorium, which has been neglected for years. My understanding is that significant repairs are still needed at the venue, and that Children’s Musical Theaterworks, the primary tenant, can’t use some theater equipment because it isn’t safe.

The other example: the Saroyan Theatre, which – if the buzz I hear is correct – is so poorly managed and downright antagonistic toward local arts groups that some are at the point of despair. The theater needs some major investments, including a new house sound system and acoustic upgrades.

If the sale goes through, the city needs to think long and hard about how it’s going to manage this thing.

2. The Bee reported the Tower Theatre purchase would be funded by a combination of general fund money and Measure P funds.

This has some local arts advocates confused and concerned.

If Measure P funds are used, that would diminish the amount available for nonprofit arts organizations that have been counting on fiscal support from the sales-tax measure, which was passed by initiative in 2018 but still hasn’t yet started disbursing funds. (Most of the tax revenues go toward the city’s parks, but some are earmarked for non-profit arts groups.) The measure requires a cultural arts master plan, which has not yet been finalized, and decisions about funding priorities are to be made by the Measure P commission.

One arts advocate, who did not want to be named, told me that while a city purchase would end the possibility of the church acquisition of the Tower Theatre, that fact does not in and of itself make it good policy or the right way to achieve that goal. Even if the city is not thinking of using the “arts” portion of funding under Measure P for this (which would be plainly illegal), it remains doubtful that this passes muster under the other provisions of the measure, the advocate says.

3. It’s the zoning, stupid.

At the end of the day, Municipal Code Section 15-1502 is clear: It prohibits community and religious and community assembly at the Tower Theatre, Bennett says. The culture-war angle is sexier and gotten more attention, but this was never an issue of “religious freedom.” This controversy was about letting a church take over a historic entertainment venue and slowly strangle the entertainment district around it.

I still don’t understand why the city didn’t step in and enforce the law.

With all that said, I’m intrigued to see what happens next.

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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.

Comments (3)

  • Steph

    So I’m told the purchase plan calls for making the lot “public parking” without current plans to install meters or charge for events.

    The City would then continue to use Lawrence Abbate to run the theater at a salary of $8,000 a month for one year. I doubt he is able to pay himself nearly that as it is now (but I don’t know).

    The church currently owns the house sound system and much of the lighting equipment. If the city takes over and the church bolts, the Tower will need new equipment stat or they’ll have to bring in equipment for every show – and it can’t be the previous sound system from BAC (Before Adventure Church). Say what you will about the church (and I will), they’ve been spending good money on equipment and repairs.

    My other concern is whether the City will be obligated to make the Tower a union house. Hooo boy that’ll raise rental rates bigtime. Ticket prices will likely have to go up a bit also to cover extra promoter costs and any ticket fees. Used to be you could swing by or call and Susan would personally help you pick out your tickets and then personally pass out Will-Call tickets. Will the City allow a mom and pop shop? Or will they need to recoup their money quickly. The Tower on a fully booked year still doesn’t fill the coffers to overflowing.

    Today will be interesting and I hope the City pulls the trigger.

    My concern is what happens next.

  • Bruce Morris

    What is the likelyhood that the church will continue ‘occupyying’ the Tower Theatre with the city as landlord?

  • Jackie Ryle

    Thank you, Donald. This is as clear a summary as is possible. This has been such a difficult and complex matter, which has brought out the best and the worst, and is a microcosm example of a world which seems set against itself. I join with you in hoping for the best outcome and again thank you for keeping the community up to date on all matters arts in Fresno


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