Joshua Tehee

Tehee: Keeping arts downtown a challenge with Fresno's sprawl

Sprawl may finally be affecting the performing arts in downtown Fresno.

The most jaded of us wonder what took so long.

Sprawl has pulled just about everything else from the city's downtown core. Retail started its migration the moment Manchester Mall went into construction and never really stopped. Residential housing was gone from downtown before that, though one could argue it is making a return.

The one thing you could count on downtown was the arts -- that and government workers.

So, when the Fresno Philharmonic, Fresno Grand Opera and others start shifting performances across town, it's at least worth a pause.

To be fair, it is a sensible move.

Saroyan Theatre was built in 1966. It has proven itself an asset to the city, but it is expansive at 2,000-plus seats, expensive to use and can have some sound issues.

Paul Shaghoian Concert Hall, by contrast, is spanking new and state-of-the-art in terms of equipment and acoustics. And at 753 seats, it's perfectly sized for some performances.

The Shaghoian is also housed on the campus of Clovis North High School, about as far from downtown Fresno as you can get while still being in the city. This issue of placement is nothing new.

When Save Mart Center was built in 2003, it outshined and outclassed the older Selland Arena and quickly pulled shows -- and audiences -- away from downtown. While no one would argue the arena's success or impact on the city's entertainment options (would Justin Bieber have played Fresno if not for the Save Mart Center?), it hurts to see the Selland (and Chukchansi Park) sit empty for large stretches of the year.

Of course, the performing arts organizations are downtown, in part, because of the concentration of venues. A quick list includes the Selland and Saroyan, along with the Warnors, Crest and Hardy's theaters. That's not to mention the Rainbow Ballroom or Arte América's plaza stage. There's also the misused (no offense to Cornerstone Church) Wilson Theatre and unused Theatre Three space.

These are beautiful, unique buildings that should be cherished. Except the years have taken a toll and even the best of these venues comes with issues. The city, for all its downtown talk, has neither the means nor track record to help upgrade the spaces (flashes of the Met museum's grand reopening/closing come to mind). An influx of private money seems unlikely it the current market.

One wonders whether it is possible to stem the tide and keep the performing arts downtown. I choose to be hopeful.

Fulton 55 is now a viable venue, attracting the middle-sized musical acts that make up the majority of touring bands.

Warnors Center for the Performing Arts has redoubled efforts at all three of its venues -- Frank's Place, Star Place and the Warnors Theatre itself -- bringing in everything from the Tanzanites Undoes Festival last weekend to rappers E-40 and Too Short (that one is April 5 if you're interested). And there are smaller venues, such as Tokyo Garden, Fresno Brewing Company and the Caris School of Dance, that continue to breath life into the area every weekend.