Council members unveil plan for city to buy Tower Theater for $6.5m – Reuters

Perhaps ending a nearly two-year saga, the city of Fresno plans to buy the Tower Theater, two city councilors announced Monday morning.

Council members Miguel Arias and Esmeralda Soria issued a press release on Twitter, announcing a total purchase price of $6.5 million for the entire plot which includes the iconic theater, 108 parking spaces and the buildings that house Me-N-Eds and Sequoia Brewing Company.

Sequoia Brewing Company filed a lawsuit against its landlord, the owners of the Tower Theater, last year over a lease dispute. Arias and Soria say the deal will see the brewery buy its building for $1.2 million (less credits for improvements and legal fees).

“The Tower Theater has been the economic anchor of our Tower District for generations. Our small businesses and residents want to preserve our historic gem so they can continue to invest and thrive in the Tower District,” Arias said in the press release.

Any action must be approved by the Fresno City Council. The board will discuss the purchase as an added item to its already scheduled meeting on Thursday.

City documents show another buyer made an offer for the Tower Theater properties in January 2021 for $6 million. The name of the potential buyer has been removed.

General Fund, Measure P would pay for the purchase

The money will come from the general fund and Measure P – a voter-approved sales tax hike for parks. The measure allows money to be spent on arts and cultural institutions. Selling parts of the property would also help fund the sale.

The deal will not involve eminent domain, as the owners of the Tower Theater are voluntary sellers. Laurence Abbate – who controls the theater on behalf of her family – will continue to direct day-to-day operations for a year. The city will pay Abbate $8,000 a month as part of the deal.

The city would then decide whether to operate the theater in-house or hire a manager

Council members are skeptical

Councilman Mike Karbassi said he could support buying and preserving the Tower Theater, but had reservations.

“We need to know the true cost, not just the $6.5 million. What is the cost of the trial? What is the total cost to Mr. Abbate of having a job? said Karbassi. “Voters have a right to know about this.”

Councilman Garry Bredefeld opposes the proposed purchase.

“The City should not be involved in a business transaction between private parties,” Bredefeld said in an email.

Bredefeld is concerned about legal costs and prefers to spend the money on public safety.

“The truth is that these politicians are pandering to a small vocal minority who don’t want the church there and are willing to waste millions of dollars to appease them. This is yet another misuse of taxpayer dollars that some Council members regularly do,” Bredefeld said.

Mayor Jerry Dyer, in a statement, offered a neutral assessment.

“The status of the Tower Theater has created enormous controversy over the past year, including legal action over its proposed sale. The overriding desire of city leaders is to ensure that all groups have equal access to the theater, as well as to preserve this crown jewel in the heart of our city. If Council approves the City’s acquisition of this property, my administration will ensure that the rules and regulations set out in the resolution are followed,” Dyer said.

A drama of nearly two years

The drama began in late 2020, when Abbate attempted to sell the Tower Theater to Adventure Church, which was leasing the facility for services.

When news of the potential sale became public, protesters gathered weekly on Sundays. Among the reasons given were perceived anti-LGBT views by the church. Protesters also said a church’s use of the theater violated city code.

If the city takes ownership of the theater, Adventure Church and any other groups will have the right to use the property.

“As a publicly owned, city-owned facility, the Tower Theater will be accessible to all groups, including all religious organizations,” Arias and Soria said.

The Save the Tower Theater Demonstration Committee encourages supporters to support the sale.

“THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT TIME FOR YOU TO ACT and write to the City Council to express your support for the City’s ownership of the Tower Theatre!” the group wrote on Facebook.

Tyler Mackey, executive director of the Tower Director Marketing Committee but speaking on his own behalf, endorses the deal.

“I’m happy to see the city taking meaningful action,” Mackey said. “It’s a relief for many businesses in the region.”

Sale leads to protests and lawsuits

At times the protests flared up, with counter-protests by the Proud Boys and other extremist groups. Police intervened for weeks, erecting barricades, separating protesters at different street corners and limiting media access to protests.

Sequoia Brewing’s lawsuit halted the closing of the sale to the church. This led to another church lawsuit against the theatre.

Both court cases are pending.

“This is a great result for our client and for the Tower community. Sequoia’s contractual rights have been respected and the Tower Theater will be accessible to the public. It’s a win-win. Our client will be giving back to the community, donating all funds that have been generously donated by Sequoia supporters, to benefit the arts in the Tower District,” Sequoia solicitor Kimberly Mayhew said in an email. .

Adventure Church, in a statement through attorney David Emerzian, warns the city that it has the right to purchase the theater.

“Adventure Church has a current and valid contract for the purchase of the Tower Theater property and related properties. The City of Fresno and the owners of the Tower Theater will be liable to indemnify our client for all damages if the City of Fresno induces a breach of this contract or proceeds to reverse condemnation of its rights to acquire ownership of the Tower Theatre,” the church said.

City council papers show Adventure Church’s agreement to purchase the Tower Theater expired on March 31, 2021. The papers also say the church is contesting the expiration of the sale.

As part of the agreement, the city will assume all lawsuits and defend the Tower Theater in court. It’s unclear how much the city might spend on legal action.

A real estate proceeding known as lis pendens remains. It is essentially a notice that a lawsuit is pending on a real estate transaction that could complicate a sale.

Although Sequoia Brewing’s lis pendens will be lifted as part of the settlement, it will remain as part of Adventure Church’s lawsuit.

Read the municipal staff report

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