//If the Tower Theatre becomes a church, it’s last call for the bars of the Tower District.

If the Tower Theatre becomes a church, it’s last call for the bars of the Tower District.

 By Jaguar Bennett | jaguarbennett@gmail.com

I confess, I’m a barfly. I love hanging out in bars. I love beer and cocktails. I love random conversations with strangers. I love long boozy conversations about philosophy, politics, morality and God that last till 2 a.m. And considering that Fresno once hit Number 1 on Men’s Health magazine’s list of the drunkest cities in America, I would bet that it’s highly likely that you, dear reader, also like having a drink in a bar now and again.

Unfortunately, it may soon be last call for bars in the Tower District, because of Adventure Church’s nine-month-long attempt to overturn existing zoning law and convert the Tower Theatre into a church.

It’s about the zoning, stupid

Adventure Church and its defenders have repeatedly claimed that the only reason why thousands of Tower District residents have opposed his takeover of the Tower Theatre is because we all hate God and churches. Adventure Church pastor, Anthony Flores says that every argument we have made about zoning is a lie and simply a cover for our anti-Christian bigotry. But if that’s true, why are we only targeting his church? Why aren’t we protesting the 27 other churches that have operated in the Tower District for decades? For that matter, why have many faith leaders from churches throughout the San Joaquin Valley joined us in opposing Adventure’s attempt to seize the Tower Theatre?

The zoning issue is the heart of why so many Tower District residents have demonstrated for over 30 weeks against Adventure Church. Under current zoning, public and religious assembly is not permitted at the Tower Theatre, even for conditional use, and for good reason. Putting a church in the middle of the Tower District threatens the liquor licenses and conditional use permits that bars depend on.

Selling alcoholic beverages to be consumed on the premises is one of the most highly regulated businesses in America. Alcohol licenses are prohibited in a 1,000-foot “sensitive use” zone around certain facilities. If the Tower Theatre is converted to a church, it threatens the liquor licenses of nearly every bar in the Tower District. This wouldn’t mean that bars would immediately close — it would just mean that granting new liquor licenses and transfers of existing liquor licenses would be restricted.

In the Tower District, bars frequently change hands. Bars close, are sold to new owners and reopen. But if liquor licenses can’t be transferred, bars will close and no new bars will open to replace them. Existing bar owners will find that their liquor license, their biggest investment, can’t be transferred to a new owner, instantly eliminating the resale value of their business. In the long term, the bars will close, one by one, until none are left.

Anthony Flores claims he has no intention of shutting down bars; he neglects to mention that he has no power to guarantee that bars will remain open. Just as Adventure Church can’t dictate the zoning of the Tower Theatre just on their say-so, they can’t magically suspend the laws regulating bars either. If the Tower Theatre is ever zoned as a church, the fate of the bars of the Tower District is sealed.

Without bars, the Tower District won’t be the Tower District

Of course, there are people who think that the Tower District would be better off with more churches and fewer bars. But bars play an essential role in maintaining the Tower District as an artsy, bohemian, queer-affirming neighborhood. Sometimes the role of bars is quite direct — every music venue in the Tower District sells alcohol and alcohol sales are key to keeping these venues profitable. The gay clubs are essential centers for the LGBTQIA+ community.

Bars also play an important behind-the-scenes role in sustaining the arts community. Bars, music venues, live theater venues and art galleries form an ecosystem. Live performance attracts more audience in a neighborhood where people can get a drink after the show, and live performances draw more people out to drink. Anything that threatens the viability of Tower District bars also threatens the long-term viability of live theater, live music, art galleries and art events like the Rogue Festival — everything that makes the Tower District the Tower District.

Of late, Adventure Church has tried to pretend that their presence won’t hurt the arts scene, but the cultural clash between freewheeling entertainment and the puritanical, homophobic church is too big to ignore. In late August, Flores released a video praising a Steely Dan cover band playing at the Tower Theatre. I wonder if anyone explained to Flores that Steely Dan was named after a fictional dildo from a novel written by a gay man.

Fresno conservatives often like to say that they support the arts, as long as the arts are “family-friendly.” But real art is never family-friendly — real art is for adults who want to see adult entertainment and think adult thoughts, often while drinking adult beverages.

Bars are an essential part of the culture of the arts. Bars are democratic, independent, free, libertine and a little sinful — all of the qualities we are fighting to keep in the Tower District.