Fresno · Politics

Housing, crime, Tower Theatre sale reign in Fresno City Council debate

The four candidates vying for Fresno City Council District 1, the lone open seat up for election this year, held a forum earlier this week to answer questions for the community ranging from homelessness and housing to the Tower Theatre. 

With Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria termed out of office, Mike Briggs, Cary Catalano, Annalisa Perea and Jeremy Preis are vying to replace her. 

Briggs is a former Fresno City Councilman and former Assemblyman looking to return to his seat on the council from around 30 years ago. 

Catalano is a public relations professional who ran against, and narrowly lost to, Soria in 2014. 

Perea currently serves as a member of the State Center Community College District and has a family legacy at City Hall with both her father and brother serving on the council in the past. 

Preis is a former Fresno police officer who currently operates a Farmers insurance agency. 

When asked about public safety, Perea, who is a committee member of Fresno’s Commission on Police Reform, said she is “somebody who’s not afraid to try new things and looks forward to continuing to support programs such as gang prevention program Advance Peace.”

“If we continue to do the same and expect different results, I think that’s the definition of insanity. When it comes to funding public safety, what we often hear is more police officers, more police officers. While that’s only one little piece of the pie, we can’t be afraid to invest in other things that have to do with public safety,” Perea said. “Public safety to me is more parks, it’s safe parks. Public safety to me is more after school programs for our youth so that we can intercept them from a pathway of crime.” 

Briggs called back to his first tenure on the council and argued for an expanded police force. 

“Our police force has diminished,” Briggs said. “When I was on the council we increased the police force to two police officers for every 1,000 citizens. We’re down to 1.4 police officers. We need police officers if we want them to safely respond to our police calls. We need to build the force. It’s very very important.”

Preis called for the solutions to come from the ground up from families themselves, saying that government cannot be the answer for everything. 

“We as parents need to get our children involved and stay involved in school and break the chain somehow,” Preis said. “So it’s not on your council. I’m here to make this city a better place so you can make it a better place for your family. I’m not going to fix your problems. I’m sorry if you don’t like that, but I’m not going to fix your problems. I’m going to make it better so you can make it better for yourself, for your children and for your grandchildren.” 

Catalano wants to see the city funnel more funds to Advance Peace and said his focus is not to put more money into public safety but to find other meaningful solutions. 

“The reality is community-based policing does not exist in Fresno, and it hasn’t for a very long time,” Catalano said. “As your next councilmember for District 1, and I’ve lived in this neighborhood for well over 24 years, it’s important that we bring a sense of public safety and ensuring that we deal with mental health, drug addiction and all kinds of after school recreational programs. And that’s why I supported Measure P because I’m sick and tired of when the budgets are tight they cut meaningful programs that help our family.” 

With Fresno continuing to face a high-priced real estate market and high numbers of homelessness, the candidates also addressed their solutions for how to help those struggling. 

Preis argued in favor of the city purchasing land outside of city limits to allow the homeless who are struggling with addiction an opportunity to receive help somewhere away from where they currently are faced with temptations. 

“If we buy 20-30 acres out in the county, make a liveable residence, put rooms and classrooms there for mental health – we employ people out there, counselors who can get them on the right track, healthy, who can teach them how to get a job, who can teach them how to interview and get them on the right path,” Preis said. 

“We have that at the Poverello House, but the Poverello House is deep in bad things all around it. It’s one step away and they’re right back on the bad track. We need to get everything out and away. Most of these people can’t go to Belize to get clean. They need somewhere that they can be safe and they don’t have to worry about the temptations that got them there in the first place.” 

Catalano said the city needs to consider a version of rent control, as well as pass inclusionary zoning, increase the housing trust fund, streamline the development process for nonprofit builders and advocate for the nonprofit builders that work on affordable housing. 

“The city continues to pacify slum lords, allow rents to skyrocket because we haven’t looked at rent stabilization opportunities,” Catalano asid. “Interesting – over 20 years we really didn’t have any apartments built in the City of Fresno. Have you ever asked yourself why? And the reason is because the development community has really dictated we’re not going to build anymore units because we don’t need them. Of course we needed them. They wanted to artificially raise the rents.” 

Perea would like to see the city invest more in affordable housing and establish a community land trust, and much of her focus lies with the senior population. 

“As we’re talking about how to house our unhoused, as we’re talking about how to control rent right now, we need to have a bigger conversation about our aging population because right now we’re not doing that and they deserve that,” Perea said. 

Briggs said he wants to see more collaboration with other jurisdictions such as the county to tackle homelessness, and he wants the city to take a more firm approach with people who have other options. 

“The portion of the homeless that I’m concerned about is those that just decided that there’s an option out there just to go be homeless,” Briggs said. “That it’s easier than getting a job and paying the first and last month’s rent and paying the PG&E deposit and stuff like that. There’s so many of those. We’ve got to tell them that no, in Fresno this is not an option. I’m not saying we can’t find a place for them.” 

One of the major topics surrounding District 1 over the last couple of years has been the future of the Tower Theatre. 

Two weeks ago, the city council approved a deal to purchase the theater for the city for $6.5 million, in the process edging out Adventure Church from buying it. As part of the deal, the city is financing Sequoia Brewing’s purchase of its building that it is currently leasing from the theater. 

The city also agreed to indemnify and cover all legal expenses of Sequoia Brewing and theater owner Laurence Abbate from any lawsuits from Adventure Church, which are in the works. 

Catalano said he supports the city’s decision to purchase the theater and wishes the city took action in January 2021 when Abbate was dealing with the financial fallout of the pandemic. 

“The indemnification is problematic, but the decision has been made and so since the decision has been made on the indemnification of paying all the legal fees, I will defend the decision with every vigor I possibly can,” Catalano said. 

Perea said she has been at the forefront of this issue since Day 1 and has been active in the weekly protests outside of the theater. 

“What it comes down to, it’s a zoning issue,” Perea said. “In order to preserve the sanctity of the economic vitality of the Tower District the city had to intervene. I would’ve liked to see The Painted Table step up and purchase the theater. I talked a lot with them early on. They put forth an offer, and unfortunately it was not accepted. The city stepping in to purchase it is not the ideal scenario, but at this point it is the best case scenario in order to continue preserving the historical integrity of the district and in order to preserve the investments that homeowners and businesses continue to invest in the Tower District.” 

While Briggs also is focussed on any potential zoning issues, he was not supportive of the city intervening in this way. 

“I felt the protective dome over the Tower Theatre was city zoning,” Briggs said. “It’s not zoned for a church. I felt it had that protection. I don’t think that the answer to our problems is the City of Fresno coming in trying to solve everything for us. I’m not going to protest or fight the city buying it. It’s a solution, and it’s really frankly nice to have the whole thing behind us if it is behind us. But I don’t think I would’ve supported that solution. I think I would’ve supported a more private sector solution. I’m not happy with how the city manages baseball parks and Granite Park and different things.” 

Preis supports the city’s purchase of the theater, but not the way it was handled. 

“If the city could’ve assisted in the selling of it to the private sector, I think that would’ve been a better solution,” Preis said. “I think that they could’ve put items in place where the seller had to invest in the beautification of the Tower Theatre and give it the facelift that it so desperately needs.”

Daniel Gligich is a reporter for The San Joaquin Valley Sun, focusing on Fresno State Athletics and the southern San Joaquin Valley. Email him at daniel.gligich@sjvsun.com.