Fresno City Council approves purchase of Tower Theater

After more than a year of controversy, litigation and a theatrical meeting of the Fresno City Council, the City Council voted Thursday to purchase the historic Tower Theater for $6.5 million.

The City Council voted 4-3 to approve a complicated purchase agreement for the property, which includes the theater, Sequoia Brewery and Me-n-Ed’s. Council members Garry Bredefeld, Luis Chavez and Mike Karbassi voted against the purchase agreement. Council members Miguel Arias, Nelson Esparza, Tyler Maxwell and Esmeralda Soria voted in favour.

The historic theater was a hotbed of controversy for more than a year after Adventure Church’s plans to purchase the building became public.

That sparked weekly protests outside the building. Business owners and community activists have expressed concern that the church’s purchase would change the character of an area known for its nightlife, arts scene and progressive politics.

The city‘s proposal was released earlier this week and was immediately met with opposition from Adventure Church, which vowed to sue.

The council’s vote came after hours of public comment from Tower residents, Adventure Church members, real estate agents, attorneys, attorneys and more.

An Adventure Church attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Theater owner absent

Laurence Abbate, the owner of the Tower Theater, was particularly missed on Thursday. He showed up at City Hall shortly after the council vote, but didn’t stay long. Prosecutor Doug Sloan later said Abbate refused to publicly answer questions about the sale, only doing so in private.

Chavez said the matter needs further negotiations and will not achieve the purpose for all parties.

“Instead, we’re going to end up in court again in a lengthy and costly litigation, paying all parties’ attorneys’ fees, with no certainty that we’re going to end up with the theater,” he said. “Swapping one lawsuit for another lawsuit doesn’t solve this problem and only further divides our community.”

Chavez also said from the dais that he didn’t trust Abbate.

“Compensating someone who has a track record of misleading during the course of their business is not good policy,” Chavez said.

Karbassi has also expressed skepticism about Abbate, even hinting at subpoenaing him, which Sloan said the city has never done in his 16-year tenure. Ultimately, the subpoena application failed.

Karbassi also noted that buying the town would be a sweet deal for Abbate, as it’s slightly more than the property’s appraised value and more than Adventure Church was willing to pay.

“Well, now I know why Mr. Abbate won’t come,” he said. “So we know the owner is overpaid at around $1.5 million.”

The bee was unable to reach Abbate by phone and left him no message as his mailbox was full. He didn’t respond to several text messages.

After the late afternoon vote, Haley White, the creative director of arts activism collective Fools Collaborative, said she wished she felt better. The day, like the past 15 months, was traumatizing, she said. The group led the protest action against the sale of the theater to the church.

“Ultimately, that’s good news. Of course we don’t think it’s the end. It’s just one step and it will take longer,” White said.

While acknowledging that Soria and Arias, who represent the Tower District, aren’t perfect, White said she’s grateful they’re doing their job despite the criticism they’ve received. She also acknowledged that while her feelings about religion and Adventure Church are complicated, she said she also sees that the church is also, in some ways, a victim in the situation.

“I really think this whole situation is so unfortunate and so much bigger than Tower,” White said. “I think the way they[Adventure Church leaders]see it is that if we keep their church out, it’s going to happen to other churches. On the other hand, I think if churches continue to overtake secular spaces, especially intentionally safe spaces like this, I agree that this is bigger than just a tower. That’s bigger than Fresno.”

The Fools Collaborative will continue to protest outside the theater each week and monitor the actions of city officials, White said.

“It doesn’t change much,” she said.

Hours of public comment

Dozens of people filled the city council chambers, and more zoomed in to the meeting to make their voices heard.

Adventure Church parishioners called on the city council to reject the proposed deal and defended their church. They said taxpayer money shouldn’t be used to buy the property or defend Abbate or the city in a lawsuit.

“I’m actually going to smuggle money to sue my church,” Brina Harwood said, referring to her tax dollars. “Why is the city spending millions of taxpayer dollars fighting a fight you can’t win?”

Many Adventure Church leaders claimed the purchase was evidence of discrimination since the majority of the church congregation was Latino. One person compared church displacement to redlining, a practice to segregate neighborhoods.

A number of other Fresno clergymen urged the City Council to approve the purchase so the Tower District community would feel safe.

Pastor Raygan Baker of the Big Red Church told council that approving the sale would affirm the LGBTQ community and the city’s decision last year to raise the Pride flag at City Hall.

Rev. Tim Kutzmark of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno said the Tower congregation made it clear that they felt unloved by Adventure Church.

“The Jesus I was taught as a little boy was a Jesus who taught love,” he said. “What we’ve heard from the Tower community is that they don’t feel love. They don’t feel love, they feel attacked.”

This story was originally published Apr 21, 2022 4:26 p.m.

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Brianna Calix reports for The Bee on Fresno City Hall, where she works to hold officials accountable and shed light on issues that profoundly impact residents’ lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister newspaper, the Merced Sun-Star, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Fresno State.

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