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Tower Theatre Owner Says He’s Moving Ahead with Sale to Church

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Even with a split decision in the most recent round in the legal saga of the Tower Theatre, the owner says he still plans to sell the iconic venue.

And, he plans to sell to Adventure Church.

“I don’t see why we all can’t get along like we have been. How great — church here, shows here … it was a home run,” said theatre owner Laurence Abbate.

Abbate, who faces strong objections from some community members, said the recent legal actions mean the current sale is “frozen,” but once they thaw out, he’s selling.

“(We want to) finalize this transaction if we can. Hopefully, that’s a clear path now to get that done and to continue shows,” Abbate said.

Abbate sat down with GV Wire for a 30-minue live interview Friday on Facebook.

Selling to Adventure Church

When news of the sale to Adventure Church became pubic in December on the Gay Central Valley blog, weekly Sunday protests started shortly thereafter.

The property includes the main theater, and also other parcels on the block at the northwest corner of Olive and Wishon avenues. Tenants include the Sequoia Brewing Company restaurant and caterers The Painted Table.

Some, such as Tyler Mackey, head of the Tower District Marketing Committee, are concerned about surrounding businesses. A church in the neighborhood could jeopardize liquor licenses, future cannabis licenses, and possibly lower property values, he said.

Others were skeptical of the church’s stand on LGBT issues.

Through the pandemic, the church held Sunday and Wednesday services at the theatre — despite local and state orders prohibiting such action (subsequent court rulings have allowed religious institutions to have limited in-person meetings). But the church ended its services at the theatre when protests over the sale began.

Abbate called the Tower District “a ghost town” during the pandemic.

“(Adventure Church) were the only ones here during COVID,” Abbate said. “When it went on the market, they had approached and said, ‘Hey, well, what do you know? What if we make a run?’ ”

Abbate said the church agreed to run entertainment shows after the sale’s completion.

“I thought it was, honestly, a great fit,” Abbate said.

“They were the only ones here and ready to go. And like I said, the offer was there for I believe quite a while and nobody was concerned. Only people really started to show up when it became known that Adventure was here. And I myself was thinking, who would want to buy a theater that cannot be run?” Abbate said.

The owners of Sequoia Brewing Company sued in February, claiming it had the first right to buy its leased property. Abbate said Sequoia was offered the property. That is one of the main issues of contention a court will decide.

Escrow elapsed on March 31, but Abbate says that won’t halt a potential sale.

Abbate would not disclose financials on the deal. Court documents revealed that Tower Theatre was willing to sell a portion of its property — leased by Sequoia Brewing Company — for $1.2 million.

A Lack of Communication

Abbate tried to pay no mind to the weekly protests, organized by the Save the Tower Theatre Demonstration Committee, he said.

“They’re just there to intimidate and push and be loud. I just don’t know. So I really don’t watch it anymore,” Abbate said. “I just stay away from it because it’s so hostile and there’s no open communication.”

Abbate said that none of the protesters has reached out to him to talk; the demonstration group has said Abbate has not reached out to them.

“I’m here all the time and would love to speak to anybody on that side, whoever the people are there, to try to see what we’re saying here. I don’t see a problem with a church,” Abbate said.

Tower Theatre supporters and the Proud Boys are on separate sides of the sidewalk at the protest on April 11. (Facebook/Oreo Express)

Abbate Denounces the Proud Boys

Counter-protesters, some from the far-right wing group the Proud Boys, attended the demonstrations Sunday mornings as well. This led to many verbal confrontations and a few physical skirmishes.

Fresno police, starting on April 18, placed barricades on the street to separate the sides.

Opponents of the sale criticized Abbate for not denouncing the Proud Boys. They have been labeled a hate group, and the Canadian government calls them terrorists.

“(What) they stand for is something that’s not anything I stand for at all. Absolutely. I don’t stand for anything like that. And I really don’t care for the protest out there with no communication. How come they’re not here talking to me?” Abbate said.

Pushing Back on Calls to Sell to Others

Last week, opponents of the sale spoke at a news conference. Speakers demanded Abbate sell to a different group that in their opinion would be a better steward of the theater.

“It’s fairly preposterous. I thought here in the United States, we owned a piece of property and then we could sell it. I’m sure they have houses and whatever. I can’t imagine going to them and saying, hey, you know, I kind of like your area here and maybe there’s some sort of park or symbol or something I’m attached to. So you can’t sell. … I don’t even know how to answer. It’s so illogical,” Abbate said.

Abbate isn’t worried about a boycott that the protester group called for when the theater reopens.

“We’ll have to cross that bridge when it happens, right? Do they want to go out and protest? I guess they can. I’m hoping that they come to their senses at some point and see that that’s not doing any good,” Abbate said.

A Tower Theatre postcard. (GV Wire/Jahz Tello)

Surviving COVID

Abbate looks forward to reopening the theater that has been in his family’s hands more than 80 years. He says his phone is “ringing off the hook” to book shows.

He plans to resume shows in August under COVID safety guidelines — such as mandatory masks and socially-distanced seating.

The theater has been dark since last March, save for the Adventure Church services.

But, the financial hardship caused by COVID was too much, Abbate said.

“It’s probably our time to go. We’ve had it and dealt with a long time. Love the theater. It has been fantastic, but after two years there’s needs of other family and things like that that need to actually have something that can make an income,” Abbate said.

The theater did not apply for city grants for small businesses, saying it was not worth the time to file the paperwork, Abbate said. But it did receive about $103,000 from the federal Payment Protection Program, according to Pro Publica.

“We can’t exist without income over here and all the bills because we still have to pay for all of the infrastructure, property tax,” Abbate said.

By having a church own the Tower Theatre, Abbate said, it would not be solely reliant on shows to survive.

“What great stewards. Again, they have more financially than even we did,” Abbate said.

The Tower Theatre has a capacity of 761 people. (towertheatrefresno.com)

Latest Legal Ruling

On Friday, the state Fifth District Court of Appeal ruled that a lower court judge erred on expunging a document that could have let the sale move forward.

However, representatives for both groups have different interpretations of appeal court ruling.

The result, according to the attorney for the group suing the Tower Theatre and other legal experts GV Wire spoke with, means the sale is still on pause.

“Because the landlord’s attorney represented to the appellate court that the writ (and the entire action) were moot because the sale to the Church was terminated as the escrow had expired, and the property would be taken off the market, the appellate court felt that it did not need to weigh in on whether she was correct (about ruling on the injunction),” Sequoia Brewing attorney Kimberly Mayhew said.

Abbate welcomed the ruling.

“That was good news. So we’re just waiting to hear the steps to move forward beyond that,” Abbate said.

There are twin tracts in the courts over the Tower sale. One is on the merits of the case itself — whether the sale harms the owners of Sequoia Brewing Company. That case will start in the court in July with a status conference.

Friday’s appellate ruling was “significant, because it is unlikely that a title company will consummate a real property sale with a lis pendens (notice of pendency of action) in place.  As a recorded document, the lis pendens also puts all other potential buyers on notice that if they try to buy the property, they will be buying a lawsuit,” Mayhew said.

[Note: the original version of this story said the appeal court ruled the Superior Court judge was correct in denying an injunction in the case. The ruling was not that definitive and has been updated.]

Court of Appeal Ruling

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