Tower District Community Increases Pressure on Theater Owner

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Tyler Mackey speaks to the press at the Tower Theatre on April 21. Behind him are representatives of Tower District business concerns. Photo by Peter Maiden

By Vic Bedoian and Peter Maiden

At a media briefing on April 21, the owners of independent businesses reemphasized their demand to terminate the sale of the Tower Theatre to the ultra-conservative, anti-LGBTQ+ Adventure Church. Residents from throughout Fresno have been demonstrating every Sunday for 16 weeks in an attempt to save the keystone of that neighborhood from an uncertain fate.

They feared the sale to the church would change the diverse atmosphere of the Tower District and cause the neighborhood to be rezoned, disallowing the sale of alcohol. In escrow, time ran out on the sale, and the theater has been removed from the market.

“There is much uncertainty regarding the sale of the Tower Theatre,” said Tyler Mackey, who was the main speaker at the press conference. “But the one thing that is clear is that it is time for Mr. Abatte to sell his theater and move on.”

Mackey heads the Tower District Marketing Committee, representing a diversity of small businesses and cultural enterprises that make up Fresno’s most unique neighborhood. His comments referenced at Tower Theater owner Laurence Abatte, who was intent on selling the performance venue to the right-wing church, despite community-wide opposition.

“Mr. Abatte has a willing party to sell to,” Mackey said, “with both the legal right to purchase the property and the financial means to do so. He can end the suffering that he has placed on this community by simply saying ‘yes.’

“Mr. Abatte’s irresponsible efforts to sell the Tower Theatre have created massive uncertainty for every other business owner, the property owners and the Tower district as a whole.”

That willing buyer is Sequoia Brewing Company. They run a popular brewpub that takes up a part of the large building that comprises the Tower Theatre structure. They believed they were entitled by contract to the first refusal on the purchase of the building.

So far, Abatte offered to sell Sequoia Brewing the part they occupy but has refused to consider selling them the entire building. An appeals judge decided on April 23 that Sequoia Brewing must be heard in court, no matter who else is interested in buying the theater.

Mackey concluded, “We still believe and stand firmly with the Sequoia Brewing Company’s claim that they should be the first ones with the right to purchase but should that first right of refusal not be upheld or be moved upon, then we would call on Laurence to consider other offers that we are aware of that are out there in the community.”

One of the concerned neighbors and entrepreneurs is Debi Ruud, owner of the Tower Music Academy. She addressed Abbate directly: “Laurence, I really don’t know what you are thinking, but I think it’s clear that our neighborhood wants you to do the right thing and to move along. It is clear that you don’t love this neighborhood the way we all do.

“Please do the right thing and move along, so that the beauty and integrity of this neighborhood can be preserved, so that the arts and the artists have a space to continue to live and breathe and work.

“Please do the right thing and allow someone to buy the theater that will keep it what it is: a historic music and arts venue that supports and values all people and all the arts.”

The weekly Sunday protest at the Tower Theatre on April 11 presented a real danger of violence, when the Proud Boys turned out in force. They were armed with knives, pepper spray and batons. They moved freely around the crowd of protesters, finally encircling them, and there was at least one assault (see the accompanying statement by the Save the Tower Theatre Demonstration Committee).

The following Sunday police shut down Wishon Avenue and put out barriers to keep the counterdemonstrators across the street from the protesters. Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama and Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer made a point of showing up. The Proud Boys have not returned.

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Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at vicbedoian@gmail.com. Peter Maiden is the photo editor of the Community Alliance newspaper.