Fresno City Council Votes To Purchase Tower Theatre After 16 Months Of Lawsuits, Protests

After 16 months of lawsuits, countersuits and weekly protests against a proposed sale of the 761-capacity Tower Theatre for the Performing Arts in Fresno, Calif., to a church, the city stepped in on April 22 and approved a resolution to purchase the square-block property itself for $6.5 million.

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The Tower Theatre for the Performing Arts in Fresno, Calif., has been the scene of protests and center of lawsuits since it was proposed for sale to a nearby church in 2019. (Photo by Debbie Speer)

The proposal approved in 4-3 vote of the Fresno City Council includes an agreement to parcel off and sell an adjacent building now leased to the owners of Sequoia Brewing, a brewpub and restaurant, for $1.2 million. A pizza restaurant occupies another corner of the property, and another restaurant leases space that is part of the main theater building, as is a fourth restaurant space vacated during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Another provision allows longtime Tower Theatre co-owner and manager Laurence Abbate to continue his current work of booking and promoting shows at the venue for one year, presumably time enough for him to wind down already-booked events and for the City to seek another venue manager – whether as a hire for the city or in the form of a facility management or booking deal with a third-party company.

The City of Fresno also agreed to indemnify Sequoia Brewing and Tower Theatre Properties – essentially Abbate and another investor – against all past and future litigation over the sale, legal fees for which are likely to be astronomical.

Adventure Church, which was effectively cut out of the deal after attorneys for the theater, church and City negotiated a mediated settlement for the sale, has promised to sue – again. 

It has already filed one suit against the theater in an attempt to force the property to be sold to the church as originally agreed.

That suit was filed once the City’s interest in the building became apparent. Adventure Church claims to still have a valid agreement with Abbate to acquire the Tower Theatre despite the City and Abbate both asserting that escrow expired more than a year ago. Abbate is believed to have made a verbal agreement with Adventure Church to rent the building for services on a week-to-week basis since then.

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The first legal broadside was filed in 2020 when Sequoia Brewing sued, effectively stopping the sale of the Tower Theatre property to Adventure Church, citing its own lease with Abbate that included a  right of refusal that required the property be offered to tenants for purchase before it could be put up for sale. 

Instead, the brewpub – as well as the surrounding Tower District community – discovered Adventure Church was about to close escrow on the property in or around December 2020. Sequoia Brewing took its case to court, delaying the sale, and community members organized and took to the street. 

The Tower District, an arts and entertainment-focused business area named for the 80-plus-year-old theater, consists of a residential neighborhood bisected by a zoned “main street commercial” strip, where several restaurants, bars, and venues for live theatrical, music and “drag” performances are located. Most such business are within a radius of the theater in which “special use” restrictions for churches and schools apply, and many have liquor licenses.

The theater, in years past, was home to Fresno Filmworks, which brought international and non-commercial films to the screen, and Reel Pride, an annual LGBTQ+ film fest. Both announced they would no longer utilize Tower Theatre because of the proposed sale to Adventure Church, which has been accused by some of being anti-LGBTQ+ and hoping to impose Foursquare Gospel — its parent church — mores on an “affirming” and progressive community. In addition, community Pride and Mardi Gras parades also culminate annually in front of the theater.

Adventure Church members and supporters, in turn, accuse the protesters of racism against a majority-Latinx church in addition to anti-Christian bias.

Several hearings and appeals later, the case remains in court where it isn’t scheduled to be heard again until early next year. As if the accumulation of legal fees weren’t enough, the community protest – taking place on a parking lot across the street from the Tower Theatre’s entrance – have continued unabated every Sunday, at some times drawing unwelcome attention and confrontations from counterprotesters.

Once COVID restrictions were eased and Tower Theatre allowed to reopen for live events, protesters often picketed and leafletted outside concerts and other events at the historic art-deco entry.

Whether the City of Fresno succeeds in its attempt to put an end to 16-month-long battle over a concert venue — and, for some, a neighborhood’s soul — may well yet be decided in court.

Disclaimer: Debbie Speer is a former resident of the Tower District, has attended many shows at the Tower Theatre, consumed many beers at Sequoia Brewing and occasionally participated in weekly protests against its sale to Adventure Church.