Perhaps ending a nearly two-year saga, the city of Fresno plans to buy the Tower Theatre, two councilmembers announced Monday morning.
Councilmembers Miguel Arias and Esmeralda Soria issued a news release on Twitter, announcing a total purchase price of $6.5 million for the entire parcel which includes the iconic theater, 108 parking spaces, and buildings that house Me-N-Eds, and Sequoia Brewing Company.
Sequoia Brewing Company filed a lawsuit against its landlord, the Tower Theatre owners, last year in a lease dispute. Arias and Soria say the deal will allow the brewpub to purchase its building for $1.2 million (minus credits for improvements made and legal fees).
“The Tower Theatre has been the economic anchor for our Tower District for generations. Our small businesses and residents want to preserve our historic jewel so they can continue to invest and thrive in the Tower District,” Arias said in the news release.
Any action must be approved by the Fresno City Council. The council will discuss the purchase as an added item to its already scheduled meeting on Thursday.
City documents show that another buyer made an offer for the Tower Theatre properties in January 2021 for $6 million. The name of the potential buyer was redacted.
General Fund, Measure P Would Pay for Purchase
The money will come from the general fund and Measure P — a voter-approved sales tax hike for parks. The measure allows for money to be spent on arts and cultural institutions. Selling portions of the property would also help fund the sale.
The deal will not involve eminent domain, as the Tower Theatre owners are willing sellers. Laurence Abbate — who controls the theater on behalf of his family — will continue to run the day-to-day operations for one year. The city will pay Abbate $8,000 a month as part of the deal.
The city would then decide whether to operate the theater in-house or hire a manager
Councilman Mike Karbassi said he could support buying and preserving Tower Theatre, but has reservations.
“We have to know the true cost, not just the $6.5 million. What’s the cost of the lawsuit? What’s the full cost for Mr. Abbate having a job?” Karbassi said. “Voters right to know about that.”
Councilman Garry Bredefeld opposes the proposed purchase.
“The City should not be involved in a business transaction between private parties,” Bredefeld said in an email.
Bredefeld is concerned about legal costs and would rather spend the money on public safety.
“The truth is these politicians are pandering to a small vocal minority that don’t want the church to be there and are willing to waste millions of dollars to appease them. It’s again a complete misuse of taxpayer money which certain Councilmembers routinely do,” Bredefeld said.
Mayor Jerry Dyer, in a statement, offered a neutral assessment.
“The Tower Theatre’s status has created a tremendous amount of controversy during this past year, including legal proceedings over its proposed sale. City leaders’ overarching desire is to ensure all groups have equal access to the theatre, as well as to preserve this crown jewel in the heart of our city. Should council approve the City’s acquisition of this property, my Administration will ensure the rules and regulations set forth in the resolution will be followed,” Dyer said.
A Nearly Two-Year Drama
The drama began in late 2020, when Abbate attempted to sell Tower Theatre to Adventure Church, which was renting the facility for services.
When news of the potential sale became public, protesters gathered weekly on Sundays. Among the reasons cited were the church’s perceived anti-LGBT views. Protesters also said that a church’s use of the theater violated the city code.
If the city does become the theater’s owner, Adventure Church and any other group will have a right to use the property.
“As a City-owned public facility, the Tower Theatre will be accessible to all groups to utilize including all religious organizations,” Arias and Soria said.
The Save the Tower Theatre Demonstration Committee is encouraging its supporters to support the sale.
“THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT TIME FOR YOU TO ACT and write to the City Council to express your support for City ownership of the Tower Theatre!” the group wrote on Facebook.
Tyler Mackey, executive director of the Tower Director Marketing Committee but speaking on his own behalf, approves the deal.
“I’m happy to see the city take meaningful action,” Mackey said. “It is a relief to many businesses in the area.”
Sale Leads to Protests, Lawsuits
At times, the protests became heated, with counterprotests from the Proud Boys and other extremists groups. Police intervened for weeks, erecting barricades, separating protesters to different street corners, and limiting media access to the protests.
The Sequoia Brewing lawsuits halted the completion of the sale to the church. That lead to another lawsuit by the church against the theater.
Both court cases are pending.
“This is an excellent result for our client and for the Tower community. Sequoia’s contractual rights were honored, and the Tower Theatre will be available for the public to use and enjoy. It’s a win-win. Our client will be giving back to the community, by donating all of the funds that were generously given by Sequoia’s supporters, to benefit the arts in the Tower District,” Kimberly Mayhew, Sequoia’s attorney said in an email.
Adventure Church, in a statement through attorney David Emerzian, warns the city it has the right to purchase the theater.
“Adventure Church has a current and valid contract to purchase the Tower Theater Property and related properties. The City of Fresno and the Tower Theatre owners will be required to compensate our client for all damages if the City of Fresno induces a breach of that contract, or conducts inverse condemnation of its rights to acquire the Tower Theatre property,” the church said.
City council documents show that Adventure Church’s deal to purchase Tower Theatre expired March 31, 2021. The documents also say that the church is disputing the expiration of the sale.
As part of the deal, the city will assume all lawsuits and defend Tower Theatre in court. It is unknown how much the city could spend in court.
A real estate proceeding known as a lis pendens remains. It is essentially a notice that a lawsuit is pending a real estate transaction that could complicate a sale.
While the lis pendens from Sequoia Brewing would be lifted as part of the deal, it will remain as part of Adventure Church’s lawsuit.