Amid Tower Theater Controversy And A Pandemic, This Iconic Fresno Business District Awaits Changes
Along Fern Avenue in the Tower District, businesses are boarded up, some lined with graffiti. There’s trash piled in the doorways.
But on this sunny Saturday afternoon, volunteers move brooms along the sidewalk and sweep the debris into boxes. There’s an upbeat feeling about their work.
One of the cleaning crew is Kacey Auston. She grew up in the Tower and is now leasing the former Bank of America building on this street. It’s still empty but she plans on opening a marijuana dispensary called Cookies Fresno.
“It would revitalize [this] whole strip as new lighting, 24 hr security. Which would then enhance the businesses around it,” says Auston.
She’s holding the space while the city considers her application. She could get an interview in March and if approved, get a license to operate by May. Auston estimates opening the location within six months of obtaining a license.
Auston says she knew immediately that the old bank location would be perfect for a dispensary.
It’s “an area that has been sitting empty and if you go by it, as a result of it sitting empty, it has created blight and there’s very few things that can go in an old bank building,” she says.
Last year, Fresno began accepting applications for recreational dispensaries. And companies have been quick to file. Several vacant locations in the Tower District are currently being leased by marijuana dispensaries who have all applied for a license.
Tyler Mackey, executive director of the Tower District Marketing Committee, points to a string of other locations within sight of each other, where dispensaries are applying for a space.
“Here we can see Bank of America, Chicken Pot Pie Shop, and the old Starbucks. There’s not a thousand feet between each of them, so literally, only one of them can get it because it’s a direct line,” he says.
The marketing committee has endorsed Cookies and another dispensary called The Artist Tree, bidding for a location in the nearby Van Ness Village.
“If we can get that area with some real traffic, that’s kind of what we think the dispensaries will bring is a large amount of traffic,” Mackey says.
With fewer businesses able to fully open in the Tower District, that means less car and foot traffic along the business corridor. Fresno police say that’s led to a spike in crime.
“Property crime did skyrocket because you have less people around, less people, you know. If I could say something that’s changed, that’s the biggest. Because the night scene is nothing what it used to be like,” says Martin Salas, a Fresno police officer assigned to the Tower District’s bicycle unit.
Salas has been patrolling the district for two years and has built relationships with business owners in the community. He says the overall mood is the same.
“Just a lot of frustration from what I’m seeing. But it's rightfully so. They have families to feed as well and their employees have families to feed, so it's just a frustrating time right now,” he says.
Back on Olive Avenue, Tyler Mackey says business owners have been resourceful about staying open during the pandemic. Parklets have popped up in front of businesses, made possible with city grants over the summer. And starting within the next two months, the city of Fresno will begin a Tower District streetscape project to widen sidewalks and plant trees along the Olive corridor. In the meantime, Mackey says remaining business owners have put more of a focus on outdoor space.
“People are going to have more space to come and enjoy spaces like FAB because COVID has forced us to make some changes. But we’re not going to give those advancements back,” he says.
And some businesses are finding other ways to expand outdoors like the LGBTQ Nightclub, FAB Fresno. Mackey points to an extensive back patio.
“That fencing over there, basically doubled the size of their business so they actually now have a large patio that takes up pretty much the same square footage as their original interior space,” he says.
And Mackey says two more nightclubs are waiting to open on the same street. But it’s not just weed shops and lounges in the Tower.
Just a few buildings down on Olive, construction is going on at the upcoming Banzai Japanese Bar and Kitchen. David Rasavong has been a longtime business owner in the Tower District.
“I was the operator of the Ivy Room on the other side of Tower. My wife was a bartender here at Score and Laughing Buddha. She actually paid for her nursing school just bartending here,” he says.
That’s about 8 years of history here in the Tower. He says he was already planning to open this new space when the pandemic hit.
“The great thing about Tower is you can be as creative as you want to be here as a business and it’s so accepting and people love it here,” he says.
But many in the community have found it hard to accept what’s happening with the Tower Theatre. It’s been in escrow for months with Adventure Church.
The issue has brought an outpouring of responses. Business owners and residents have flooded City Hall with emails and phone calls. And weekly Sunday protests have drawn even more attention.
“The Tower Theatre is like our icon here and that would take that completely away from us,” says Irene Saul, owner of Irene’s Cafe.
In between lunch and dinner service, she takes a break on the restaurant patio. Just last month, she reopened the patio for outdoor dining when restrictions were lifted.
“This last shutdown was really drastic for us. It was devastating,” she says.
But she’s been determined. Saul cut back her staff of 25 to just four people, including herself and her son. They’ve kept their entire menu and service hours. This year will be her 30th year in business.
Tyler Mackey says this kind of stamina is a defining characteristic of the district, especially since the pandemic.
“The people of the Tower District are resilient. They know what they want, here for the long haul. They’re fully committed. And they took their licks, but they plan to brush it off and come back strong,” he says.
Mackey says just under the surface, there’s a far more lively Tower District ready for business, once restrictions are fully lifted.