The city of Fresno issued citations to both Adventure Church and the owner of the Tower Theatre for holding indoor services last Sunday.
Adventure Church received its first citation, carrying a $250 fine; the theater’s owner received its second citation, which includes a $500 fine. It is unclear when the first citation to the Tower Theatre was issued.
Adventure Church Pastor Anthony Flores said he wasn’t aware of the citation when contacted on Thursday by GV Wire℠. He proposed a counteroffer.
“I don’t know what they cited me for. But I’ll gladly make a donation to the Fresno Rescue Mission for $250,” Flores said.
Flores also said he would be contacting his attorney.
“I would ask you for every other church that had services on January 24th, got fined? That would be a question my lawyer would want to know. So I’ll pass it on to my lawyer and let them know that if we’re the only ones being singled out, I think that only strengthens our case,” Flores said.
The city issued a warning to the church and the theater on Jan. 5 to cease holding services at the venue, alleging violations of the city’s emergency order and zoning code.
Services Scheduled for Sunday
Flores says the fine won’t deter his church from holding services at Tower Theatre this coming Sunday.
“I’ll be there this Sunday. If the owner lets me, I’m there,” Flores said.
The church has been holding in-person services since May. Currently, state and local stay-at-home orders prevent such services. Outdoor services are allowed.
For the past two weeks, protests have been held across the street from the theater during Sunday services. Video from last Sunday shows about 30 demonstrators holding signs and encouraging passing cars to honk.
Flores welcomes the activity.
“I love that we live in America. It’s the greatest place to live. That First Amendment is so beautiful. I’m so excited that everybody’s exercising that First Amendment right, including us, to have religious assembly. And so I have no problem with it at all,” Flores said.
Church Sale Ongoing
Adventure Church is also in the process for purchasing Tower Theatre. The sale is in escrow, which means the church has the legal right to complete the sale without another party intervening. Escrow is expected to close in mid-February.
The sale has led to pushback from the Tower community, arguing that a church owning the theater is not the proper fit.
The Fresno City Council will discuss the pending sale at its meeting today in closed session. One agenda item references a potential lawsuit.
A group called Save the Tower Theatre, led by Tower District Marketing Committee Executive Director Tyler Mackey, sent the city a letter, asking for intervention.
“We collectively reach out to you to ask you to take steps to ensure the City will directly intervene. We are requesting that the City immediately seek injunctive relief to prevent irreparable harm to the financial interests of Tower District businesses,” the letter says.
Councilman Miguel Arias says his office has received thousands of messages. Several members of the public spoke on the Tower Theatre sale issue at Thursday’s city council meeting.
In addition, Fresno police say they are investigating an email sent to Jeromie Hansen of The Painted Table — who is a tenant of the Tower Theatre, which owns other properties on that block that are part of the sale.
The email used homophobic slurs in relation to Hansen’s recent offer to purchase the theater if the church’s effort falls through. Police say the email could be considered harassment under Penal Code 653m.
Adventure Church condemned the email. Flores said if it was sent by one of his parishioners, they would be disciplined.
Mayor Offers Alternative
Mayor Jerry Dyer at Thursday’s city council meeting, said he has received hundreds of messages as well.
“I don’t think anybody anticipated this level of division and divisiveness over this issue,” Dyer said.
He offered an alternate. In a letter sent Wednesday night, Dyer offered a 10-year lease of the Fresno Memorial Auditorium downtown, with an option for 10 more. Monthly rent would be $2,000 for the first five years, gradually increasing to $2,750 for years 16-20.
“It is my hope that they do take advantage of that offer. I believe it is a very, very fair offer for them. I’m hoping the result of that brings unity back to our community and maybe allow us to to get this thing resolved and retain the fabric and characteristic of the Tower District,” Dyer said.
Flores appreciated the offer, but is hesitant.
“We’d like to say thank you to the mayor for extending an olive branch,” Flores said. “We will pray about it.”
Among Flores’ concerns is the amount of repairs the auditorium would need and the church’s desire to be owners and not renters.
The city’s offer includes utilities and a promise to make repairs.
Another concern was the need for council approval of the lease.
“How am I to trust the council who has already went after me and they’ve already tried to destroy the deal I have in place with the Tower Theater?” Flores asked. “How I’m supposed to trust those same council members to vote in favor of me renting the Memorial for 10 years. Or I get in there and then all of a sudden they have another ax to grind with me and they get rid of us?”
The church says councilmembers Esmeralda Soria and Miguel Arias met with Tower Theatre representative Laurence Abbate on Jan. 11 about an alternate sale.
A letter, dated Jan. 27 from Abbate, provided by the church, seems to confirm those details.
Flores called that meeting “an attack against the church.”
“There’s some angst against me from these council members that I don’t know what I’ve done. So I am definitely concerned about that. And I just think they need to be held accountable for that meeting. Why wasn’t I invited to that meeting? Why didn’t we all sit down and discuss this?” Flores said.
Flores says he has no angst against anyone.
Other Offers on Table
Hansen, with the Painted Table, publicly announced an offer to purchase the Tower Theatre and surrounding properties, including the building he leases.
However, real estate experts GV Wire spoke with said that Hansen’s offer could only be considered if Adventure Church’s deal falls through.
Jeremy Smith, owner of Sequoia Brewing, another Tower Theatre tenant, is considering exercising his option of right of first refusal.
Flores supports Smith exercising his right.
Smith says that would only apply for his building, and not the theater itself.
Flores Defends Holding Indoor Services
During public comment at Thursday’s council meeting, several speakers were upset that the church continued with in-person services.
Flores believes the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually rule in their favor to have indoor services.
He also says they are being careful.
“We are doing far more cleaning and physical distancing than any Costco, any airplane ride or anything else. If people come to our church services, they would see that we turn off the air. So, we have no air circulation. We are taking the necessary precautions,” Flores said.
He also believes the services are his First Amendment right.
The church and the theatre received notices for three zoning violations:
— Fresno Municipal Code § 10-605(j): Violation of zoning ordinance;
— Section 15-1202: Use regulation, religious assembly in a space larger than 2,000 square feet;
— Section 15-2719(A): Property Development Standards. Development shall comply with the Property Development Standards of the District in which the project is located.
Additionally, the city alleges that both the church and theater are in violation of the city’s most recent emergency order, which incorporated the state’s order.
The church says that such restrictive zoning is a violation of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. In a news release, the church said it would “continue to advocate for their legal rights for the private sale of the property if necessary, in court.”