Fresno

Fresno closes deal, takes ownership of Tower Theatre

After a nearly two-year-long legal and political battle, Fresno’s historic Tower Theatre finally has a new owner: the taxpayer.

Friday, the City of Fresno, which interceded in a lengthy and complicated sales process between outgoing owner Lawrence Abbate and Adventure Church, announced it closed escrow on the 89-year-old theatre complex.

The 2020 sale of the theatre to the church, a longtime tenant of the complex, faced significant public opposition from Tower District neighbors and local elected leaders, including the district’s two City Council members – Esmeralda Soria and Miguel Arias.

Adventure Church’s purchase of the theater faced legal challenge from a retail tenant of the theater complex, Sequoia Brewing, which alleged it had a first right of refusal to purchase the property.

That contractual right proved to be a significant barrier to closing the sale to Adventure Church throughout 2021, forcing a handful of rulings on the merits of whether the brewery had legal rights to buy the building and whether Abbate was acting in good faith to all parties.

In mid-April of this year, the Fresno City Council voted 4-3 to purchase the historic theater directly from Abbate, edging out the church, at a price of $6.5 million.

The deal included additional provisions that proved equally, if not more, controversial. Fresno taxpayers would provide a low-interest loan to Sequoia Brewing to purchase its space within the Tower Theatre complex.

The interest rate, 3.5 percent, is significantly lower than market rates for commercial properties, particularly amid a number of intervening rate hikes by the U.S. Federal Reserve.

The other controversial provision of the deal? An agreement that Fresno taxpayers would indemnify Abbate and Sequoia Brewing from any litigation arising from the transaction.

That would prove fateful merely a week after the deal was reached, with Adventure Church suing the City of Fresno to block the sale.

In late June, Fresno County Superior Court Judge Kristi Culver Kapetan denied a motion by the church to stop the sale to the city.

With ownership of the theatre complex now in the hands of the City of Fresno, city officials announced that they will shutter the site for 30 days to complete “safety inspections and repairs to the Theatre, as needed, depending on the results of the safety inspection.”

Additionally, city officials will spend that period upgrading the sizable parking lot behind the theatre and updating spaces to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

There are no performances being scheduled at the site during the inspection and repair period, the city said.

Beyond repairs, City officials have a bigger task ahead with respect to the theatre: determining who gets to utilize the theatre and the process for booking the site.

“A City use policy is being finalized so that all members of the community and groups have equal access to the Theatre and can reserve it on days that the Theatre is not already booked or scheduled for maintenance,” a Friday release from Soria and Arias read.

Abbate, as part of the sale agreement is remaining as the Theatre’s operator until Fresno completes a bidding process for a new operator. He will, however, be bound to the city’s to-be-determined use policy.

For their part, Soria and Arias celebrated the long-awaited transaction.

“As a Councilmember representing Fresno’s Tower District, I am pleased the City of Fresno has closed on the purchase of the historic Tower Theater. This iconic cultural asset must be preserved, and the City of Fresno is dedicated to doing just that,” Soria said in a statement. “Now, we must all move forward together as a community to ensure the Tower Theater is successful and continues to serve as a regional entertainment venue where diversity is celebrated and inclusion is embraced.”

“It is now time to focus on our collective energy and return arts and cultural events to our now publicly owned historic venue. I invite all our community to submit their interest and enjoy this amazing public venue.” said Arias.

Meanwhile, Adventure Church Pastor Anthony Flores announced in a Facebook video, that the church was denied access to the theatre for its usual Sunday service.

“I just found out that we’ve been locked out, we don’t know what’s going on. We showed up to do business as usual, check in-hand to pay this week’s rent and so we weren’t given any notification that we weren’t going to be let in or that we weren’t going to have access to our stuff,” Flores said.

“So we don’t know exactly what’s going on.”

Reid Stone is a contributing reporter for The San Joaquin Valley Sun.