City set to approve new operator for Tower Theatre

Thursday’s city council meeting could see the city cut ties with the theater’s previous owner as a new group takes over operations.

Last year the City of Fresno bought the Tower Theatre, a controversial move that capped years of uncertainty for Fresno’s popular performance arts center. 

Now the city appears ready to hire a new operator, and it looks like former theater owner Laurence Abbate is on the outs. 


The backstory: Longtime Tower Theatre tenant Adventure Church initially had an agreement in place to purchase the theater in 2020, yet the evangelical church faced significant opposition from Tower District leaders and City Councilman Miguel Arias and then-City Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria. 

  • Sequoia Brewing, a tenant of the Tower Theatre complex, held the sale up in court with a lawsuit alleging that it had a first right of refusal to purchase the property, leading to a contentious 2021 that kept Adventure Church from ever crossing the finish line. 
  • Last year the city emerged as a potential buyer, and on a 4-3 vote the council moved to purchase the theater for $6.5 million. That decision was a controversial one at Fresno City Hall since the agreement would indemnify Abbate and Sequoia Brewing in any litigation surrounding the purchase, and Sequoia Brewing received a 3.5 percent interest loan to purchase its building in the Tower Theatre property. 
  • The agreement also brought Abbate on as the theater’s operator until the city completed a bidding process for an operator. The city began the bidding process last November and interviewed three candidates: Abbate’s Tower Theatre Productions, 809 Olive Avenue LLC and Sterling Venue Ventures. 

The big picture: The city’s evaluation committee unanimously recommended 809 Olive Avenue LLC to be the next operator on a three-year deal with two one-year extensions. 

  • 809 Olive Avenue LLC will receive a fee equal to 12 percent of the gross receipts of the Tower Theatre, which is estimated to be just under $160,000 for the first year. 
  • The city is expecting five events on average every month during the first year of operation and anticipates a net positive cash flow at the end of the first year. 
  • 809 Olive Avenue LLC is a new company that is composed of longtime entertainment producers and organizers locally in Fresno and the Central Coast: Eddy Burgos, Todd Newman, Kim Gaytan and Nick Kennedy. Some of their experience includes owning Strummer’s nightclub. 

What we’re watching: The Fresno City Council will vote on the contract during Thursday’s meeting, and 809 Olive Avenue LLC could take over in June when Abbate’s contract expires. 

What they’re saying: “We’re thrilled about the opportunity to manage the Tower Theatre on behalf of the community, which is a vital anchor for the Tower District’s business and culture,” Kennedy, who would be the general manager, said in a statement. 

  • Kennedy added, “It’s an honor to continue the theater’s legacy as one of the premier mid-sized music venues in Fresno and the Central Valley. We want to make sure the Tower Theater is an inclusive and welcoming space for everyone in the community. It’s a special place that holds a lot of memories for many people, and we’re committed to preserving its legacy while also bringing in new and diverse programming.”
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