Council members unveil plan for city to buy Tower Theater for $6.5 million – GV Wire

Perhaps the city of Fresno is ending a nearly two-year saga and planning to buy the Tower Theater, two council members said Monday morning.

Council members Miguel Arias and Esmeralda Soria issued a press release on Twitter announcing a total purchase price of $6.5 million for the entire property, which includes the iconic theater, 108 parking spaces and buildings housing Me-N- Ed’s and the Sequoia Brewing Company are housed.

The Sequoia Brewing Company filed a lawsuit against its landlord, the owners of the Tower Theater, in a rent dispute last year. Arias and Soria say the deal will allow the brewpub to purchase its building for $1.2 million (less credits for improvements made and legal fees).

“Tower Theater has been the economic anchor for our Tower District for generations. Our small businesses and residents want to preserve our historic gem so they can continue to invest and thrive in the Tower District,” Arias said in the release.

Any action must be approved by the Fresno City Council. The council will discuss the purchase as an additional item to its already scheduled meeting on Thursday.

City documents show another buyer made a bid on the Tower Theater properties in January 2021 for $6 million. The potential buyer’s name has been redacted.

General Fund, Measure P would pay for the purchase

The money comes from the general fund and Measure P – a voter-approved sales tax hike for parks. The measure enables funds to be spent on art and cultural institutions. Selling parts of the property would also help finance the sale.

The deal will not include Eminent Domain as the Tower Theater owners are willing sellers. Laurence Abbate, who runs the theater on behalf of his family, will continue running the theater for a year. Under the terms of the agreement, the city will pay Abbate $8,000 a month.

The city would then decide whether to run the theater itself or hire a manager

Council members skeptical

Councilor Mike Karbassi said he could support the purchase and preservation of the Tower Theater but had reservations.

“We need to know the true cost, not just the $6.5 million. How much does the lawsuit cost? What is the full cost for Mr. Abbate if he has a job?” Karbassi said. “Voters have a right to know about it.”

Councilor Garry Bredefeld opposes the proposed purchase.

“The city should not be involved in a business transaction between private individuals,” Bredefeld said in an email.

Bredefeld worries about legal fees and would rather spend the money on public safety.

“The truth is these politicians are pandering to a small vocal minority who don’t want the church to be there and are willing to waste millions of dollars to appease them. It’s once again a complete misuse of taxpayers’ money, which certain council members routinely do,” Bredefeld said.

Mayor Jerry Dyer issued a neutral assessment in a statement.

“The Tower Theater’s status has caused enormous controversy over the past year, including legal proceedings over the proposed sale. The overarching desire of the city leadership is to ensure that all groups have equal access to the theater and to preserve this crown jewel in the heart of our city. Should the council approve the city’s acquisition of this property, my administration will ensure that the rules and regulations set out in the resolution are followed,” Dyer said.

A drama lasting almost two years

The drama began in late 2020 when Abbate attempted to sell Tower Theater to Adventure Church, which leased the facility for services.

When news of the potential sale broke, protesters gathered weekly on Sundays. Reasons cited included the church’s perceived anti-LGBT views. The protesters also said that a church’s use of the theater was against city ordinances.

If the city becomes owner of the theater, Adventure Church and any other group will have the right to use the property.

“As a city-owned public facility, Tower Theater will be open to all groups, including all religious organizations,” said Arias and Soria.

The Save the Tower Theater Demonstrations Committee encourages its supporters to support the sale.

“HERE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT TIME FOR YOU TO ACT and write to the City Council to express your support for the City’s ownership of 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 pleased that the city is taking meaningful action,” Mackey said. “This is a relief for many companies in the region.”

Sale leads to protests, lawsuits

At times the protests turned heated, with counter-protests from the Proud Boys and other extremist groups. The police intervened for weeks, erecting barricades, dispersing protesters on different street corners and restricting media access to the protests.

The lawsuits against Sequoia Brewing halted the completion of the sale to the church. This led to another lawsuit against the theater by the church.

Both court cases are pending.

“This is an excellent result for our customer and the Tower community. Sequoia’s contractual rights have been honored and the Tower Theater will be open for the public to use and enjoy. It’s a win-win situation. Our client will give back to the community by donating all funds generously donated by Sequoia’s supporters to benefit the arts in the Tower District,” said Kimberly Mayhew, Sequoia’s attorney, in an email.

Adventure Church, in a statement through attorney David Emerzian, warns the city that it has the right to purchase the theater.

“Adventure Church has a current and valid contract to purchase the Tower Theater property and associated land. The City of Fresno and the Tower Theater owners must indemnify our client for all damages if the City of Fresno brings about a breach of contract or conversely condemns their rights to acquire the Tower Theater property,” the Church said.

City Council documents show that Adventure Church’s contract to purchase Tower Theater expired on March 31, 2021. The documents also say the church disputes the course of the sale.

As part of the deal, the city will assume all lawsuits and defend Tower Theater in court. How much the city might spend in court is unknown.

A real estate proceeding known as lis pendens remains. It is essentially a notice that a lawsuit is pending in a real estate transaction that could make a sale difficult.

While Sequoia Brewing’s lis pendens would be resolved as part of the deal, it remains part of Adventure Church’s lawsuit.

Read the city’s employee report

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