Fresno Tower Theatre: City Steps In After 18 Months Of Protest And Venue Sale Fails

TOWER TO THE PEOPLE: A police officer cycles past barricades and counter-protestors in front of the Tower Theater in Fresno, Calif., April 18, 2021. Photo by Deborah Speer

The City of Fresno, Calif., is poised to take ownership of the embattled Tower Theatre for the Performing Arts after 18 months of lawsuits, countersuits and weekly protests against a proposed sale of the 761-capacity venue to Adventure Church, an affiliate of The Foursquare Church.

Between numerous court actions and other delays, escrow expired between Tower Theatre Properties, the theater owner, and Adventure Church. The city stepped into the dispute and approved a resolution to make an offer to purchase the square-block property for $6.5 million.

The purchase 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.

The City’s acquisition, which is to be paid for with money from a taxpayer-approved arts and parks fund, marks something of a rare victory for an arts and entertainment business district with an independent, eclectic vibe. During the COVID pandemic the Tower Theatre, like most independent venues, faced numerous existential threats and was forced to close. Its owner, Tower Theatre Properties, sought to sell the historic landmark.

Adventure Church made an offer and the Tower Theatre quietly went into escrow. Sequoia Brewing’s owners learned of the pending sale and filed a court challenge, claiming it was not first offered the opportunity to purchase the property as required by its own lease contract with Tower Theatre Properties, and ultimately prevailed.

The use of the Tower Theatre for church services has been contentious as it sits at the intersection of two major streets in the city’s Tower District and is the hub of a bustling shopping, dining and entertainment district.

Community activists and nearby businesses said church services violated zoning laws and feared the church, if allowed to purchase the venue, would challenge future liquor license transfers and sales within 1,000 feet – affecting numerous bars and restaurants.
“The zoning was challenged by residents and businesses concerned about potentially losing their liquor licenses,” Fresno City Councilman Miguel Arias, who represents the neighborhood, said in a KFCF-FM radio interview July 6.

“There’s two dozen small businesses in that corridor. The Tower Theater is the single largest economic engine for the whole [district]. It’s what attracts the concerts and performances where people will stay at the local coffee shop or at the local pub or restaurant after the event. So clearly, everyone had a stake in it.”

The agreement allows longtime Tower Theatre co-owner and manager Laurence Abbate to continue booking shows at the venue for one year. Arias says he would support the creation of a non-profit organization to operate and book the Tower Theatre going forward, ensuring it remains available to national concert promoters as well as local arts organizations. The City could also hire a local team to manage it, or put facility management out for bid.

Before any decisions are made, however, the City intends to briefly close the theater to make upgrades to meet ADA standards.

During the dispute, two organizations – Fresno Filmworks and Reel Pride film festival – announced they would no longer use the facility for their popular series if the sale to the church went through, or if the Theatre remained under current ownership. City ownership appears to resolve those issues.

Reel Pride is one of the largest LGBTQ+ film festivals in the country, and Fresno Filmworks brings indie films monthly that often sell out.

Local community activist and comedian/actor Jaguar Bennett welcomes the non-profit idea. Bennett is also a longtime volunteer and organizer of Fresno’s Rogue Festival for “outsider art,” which fills the Tower District with performances and exhibits (and thousands of fans) over two weeks each year and often uses the theater as well.
“Since the theater is now a public resource, it should be responsive to the public,” Bennett said. “We can have the best of both worlds with our local pool of talent and people with industry connections to book major touring acts. What I’m hopeful for is that the Tower Theatre can be a truly vibrant place where you can see a whole different slate of entertainment. That’s my dream.”