On the first Thursday night of every month, the Old Fresno Water Tower is typically full of people checking out local art that lines the walls and shelves of the historic building. But while dozens of Art Hop patrons visit the gift shop, gallery and visitors center in one of Fresno’s most recognizable buildings, the future of the downtown landmark is uncertain.
The Fresno Arts Council, which runs the gallery space in the city-owned building, says it is short on cash, and may have to shut the space down within months.
The possibility that tower could close doesn’t sit well with a young girl named Sandra who visited the gallery and store during Art Hop with a sponsor from the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
“I have never been in this building but I think it is pretty sad that a place like this would actually get closed because I think a ton of people from an early age should come in here and learn about their town and where they are from. It is their history of where they were,” Sandra says.
Built in the late 1800’s, the building hasn’t been a functioning water tower since the 1960’s. Now, it’s a unique space that welcomes guests to town as a gateway to the city’s urban core. Artists pay a small fee to display their art and any profit from sales goes right back to them.
Alisha Xiong is the manager of the visitors center and galley. She says the unique, ornate design of the 109 foot-tall tower drew her to it.Xiong is the manager of the visitors center and galley. She says the unique, ornate design of the 109 foot-tall tower drew her to it.
“I think the fact that it is a historic building and I think the fact it is open to the public which makes it very unique. Because a lot of places that are historic are not open to the public. They are for private used. So the fact that there is the potential of it closing down is a loss. It is a loss for the city most definitely,” Xiong says.
Lilia Chavez, the executive director of the Fresno Arts Council, says the building is an icon for the city. “It’s been used in so many ways to represent Fresno. It is unique. It is different. And it is kind of a major attraction for downtown.”
Since the Fresno Arts Council took over operating the space in 2014, she says they were basically able to break even through gift shop sales and fundraising. But this year, a PG&E rate increase has thrown the math of running the facility into disarray.
“The board has agreed to allow us to continue operating for six months to see if we can find a way to close that gap. If we can, we will continue to operate the water tower. But without additional support, it is unlikely we would be able to close that gap. Which would mean we would close the water tower,” Chavez says.
The rate change means that the arts council is about $8,000 in the red. That’s significant since Chavez says it costs about $19,000 a year to keep the water tower open for the several thousand visitors that stop by every year.
Chavez says closing the tower would be a big hit to downtown which has been the focus of a ramped up revitalization effort including the planned high-speed rail train depot and the Fulton Street reconstruction project.
“Since so much of an investment is already being made in increasing the participation of people in the downtown area. This is just another important facility that we really need to maintain. And that is really why the arts council has agreed to keep trying to find a way to keep it open,” Chavez says.
Chavez says they took their concerns to the city during the budget writing process earlier this year. However, no additional funding was included to balance the books of the tower. Chavez says their goal is not to make money but just to break even.
Mayor Lee Brand says he is aware of the challenges facing the tower but says there are lots of needs in the city right now.
“We will look at it. I am open to it. But I have a laundry list of other projects too. It is on the list. I hope to address it. And that and many other issues too,” Brand says.
Chavez says the arts council is considering all of their options to raise funds if the city doesn’t find a way to help them fill the gap, such as looking for more community support.
Tower volunteer Linda Bishop argues that closing the tower would represent a step back in the interest of revitalizing downtown.
“There is great beauty in downtown. And we are revitalizing it. So why would we take one of the treasures and smash it or close it,” says Bishop.
But without a new funding stream, the Fresno Arts Council says ‘close it’ is exactly what they will have to do.