Updated: Fresno City Council approves measure to buy the Tower Theatre
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.”
Related story: COMMENTARY: WITH THE NEIGHBORHOOD SO OPPOSED, WHY WOULD ADVENTURE CHURCH WANT TO BUY THE TOWER THEATRE?
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.”
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.