//Victory! (we hope.)Now what happens?

Victory! (we hope.)Now what happens?

By Jaguar Bennett  | jaguarbennett@gmail.com

The struggle for control of the Tower Theatre entered a new phase on April 21, as the Fresno City Council voted to buy the theater from its current owner, Laurence Abbate. While city ownership is a positive step forward, the fight is not yet over. Instead, the council vote sets up a new set of conflicts that will need sorting before the Tower Theatre is truly safe.

The proposal to buy the theater squeaked by on a 4-3 vote after nearly a full day of public comment in city council chambers. The hearing included heartfelt testimony from Tower District defenders, angry shouting, heckling by Adventure Church partisans, and at least one spontaneous sermon from an overexcited preacher.

As you would expect, the sole argument from the supporters of Adventure Church was that any solution that did not leave the church in complete control of the Tower Theatre was religious persecution on a scale not seen since the height of the Spanish Inquisition. However, that claim was soundly rejected by several Christian ministers who voiced support for the city’s acquisition of the theater and preservation of the unique, queer-affirming culture of the Tower District.

For those of you keeping score on which council members are friends of the Tower District, the members in favor of saving the Tower Theatre were Miguel Arias, Nelson Esparza, Tyler Maxwell, and Esmeralda Soria. The votes against the proposal were Garry Bredefeld, Luis Chavez, and Mike Karbassi. You might want to remember that when you vote in city council elections this year.

The deal that the city council approved attempts to make a comprehensive settlement of all outstanding property disputes. Consequently, the agreement has a lot of moving parts. Here’s what it contains:

—The city will buy the Tower Theatre from Laurence Abbate for $6.5 million.

—Sequoia Brewing Company will buy its building and lot from the city for $1.2 million.

—However, Sequoia will receive credits for repairs and legal fees that will reduce their net purchase price to $950,000.

—Sequoia will waive its first right of refusal to buy the Tower Theatre property to allow this deal to move forward.

—The city will open the Tower Theatre parking lot as public parking.

—The city will pay for the Tower Theatre out of general funds and Measure P funds. (Measure P funds, financed by retail sales taxes, are earmarked for support of the arts and parks and recreation purposes.)

—The city will indemnify Laurence Abbate and Sequoia from litigation by Adventure Church.

—Laurence Abbate will continue to manage the Tower Theatre for one year and receive $8,000 a month from the city for his services.

The indemnification provision shows that the city fully expects Adventure Church to sue. Sure enough, within days of the proposal, Adventure Church’s lawyer issued a statement threatening to sue the city.

Adventure’s lawyer made as much drama as possible of the threat of a lawsuit, waving claims of religious persecution once again and calling the city’s purchase of the theater “financially reckless.”

It makes for a good press release, but it’s not immediately clear whether Adventure Church even has any standing to sue. Adventure Church has not suffered any material harm by Laurence Abbate finding another buyer. Adventure never completed its purchase of the theater, and they have never owned any interest in the building. Adventure Church has had its hopes dashed and its pride wounded, but you can’t sue on those grounds.

The key legal question seems to be whether Adventure’s purchase contract from November 2020 is still in effect. Laurence Abbate and the city say Adventure’s deal has been dead since they let their escrow expire in March 2021; Adventure’s lawyer insists the contract is still open and in effect.

It should be noted that Adventure launched a lawsuit against Laurence Abbate in February of this year for not disclosing Sequoia’s first right of refusal in November 2020. On the one hand, Adventure concedes that Sequoia did have the first right of refusal; on the other hand, Adventure also argues that its contract is still in effect. This is trying to have it both ways. Suppose Sequoia did indeed have the first right of refusal. In that case, it could be argued that Adventure’s purchase contract was never valid. Well, we’ll see how all this works out in court.

But even if Adventure does not prevail in its litigation against the city, there remain plenty of questions about what will happen next. For example, how long will it be before the city effectively controls the Tower Theatre? When will Adventure Church be barred from holding weekly Sunday services at the theater? And after Abbate’s one-year management contract expires, how will the city manage the theater?

The city has a terrible track record of mismanaging theater venues — just look at the current state of the Veterans Memorial Auditorium and the Saroyan Theatre. Once the city has possession of the Tower Theatre, the next phase of community struggle will be to ensure that the community decides who will use the theater, not some soulless L.A. promotions company. The ideal solution would be to put theater management in the hands of a community-based arts nonprofit organization that represents artists and residents.

Like all real-life victories, the city purchase of the Tower Theatre is messy, somewhat unsatisfying, and provokes a lot of concerns. But it is a victory, and that should be celebrated.