City threatens Tower Theatre over church usage and violations, but could Fresno buy it?

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- A tall marquee has marked the creative center of Fresno for decades.

"The Tower District is a very unique, historical area," said the district's city council member, Esmeralda Soria. "It's iconic."

But the original icon has riled up some of the district's devotees.

Since word got out that Adventure Church planned to buy the theater, the topic has dominated discussion for Council Member Esmeralda Soria.

"It's probably been in the hundreds -- emails, texts, direct calls, direct messages through social media -- just expressing their concerns about what this change would mean to the Tower District as a whole," she said. "There are different restrictions about what kind of uses and businesses can come into that economic corridor."

The Tower Theatre building sits on Olive Ave., in the middle of the district which gets its name from the theater.

The street is zoned as a "Community Main Street", which means space bigger than 2,000 square feet can't have religious assembly as their main use.

The city notified owner Laurence Abbate of this potential sale snag in an email Tuesday. City attorneys also warned Abbate that the church was violating emergency orders by hosting indoor services.

Abbate didn't want to do an interview on camera, but he told Action News the church renting his theater on Sundays has kept his business alive, and they've been good stewards of the property and the neighborhood.

Church leaders told the city they plan to keep scheduling concerts and other events as soon as they can, so church services won't be the main use and the theater will keep its character.

We reached out to the church's pastor for comment but never heard back.

But in their email warning about zoning issues and emergency order violations, city attorneys threatened that if the church continues indoor operations, the city will criminally prosecute as well as shutting down the Tower Theatre business.

Movies brought Cary Catalano to the Tower Theatre as a kid.

"I saw Jaws! here," he said.

He's appreciated it ever since. The business owner and Tower District resident says the city can get creative to protect the owner from losing his business to the pandemic closures.

Although Abbate never applied for direct COVID funding from the city, Catalano is promoting a much bigger government investment to buy the theater - like Visalia did with its Fox Theatre.

"I think the city really engaging and investing and purchasing the Tower Theatre and the block itself really makes sense as we launch a new capital effort to revitalize this district," Catalano said.

The new money coming in from Measure P could be used, and Soria says she's had discussions about that with Mayor Jerry Dyer. She also believes private investors other than the church might be willing to step up.

City council voted Thursday to support Measure P passing with a simple majority.

52% of voters supported it in the November 2018 election, but city officials at the time said it required a two-thirds supermajority.

An appeals court ruled last month that a simple majority was all it needed under state law, because it was a citizen initiative.

The city could start collecting the three-eighths of a cent sales tax by late summer or early fall.

Measure P was designed to help the city build new parks, but also to give the city expanded access to arts and culture.
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