The Old Fresno Water Tower may close. The reason why is hard to pin down

News broke this week that the Old Fresno Water Tower – one of the most iconic buildings in the city – was at risk of closing. The Fresno Arts Council, which took over the city landmark in 2014, reported that a PG&E rate hike has left it $8,000 short. If the council can’t raise the money in the next six months, the tower will close.

It’s actually a bit more complicated than that. It’s true that the arts council is asking for $8,000, but the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. rate increase is only part of the reason why.

Fresno Arts Council Executive Director Lilia Chavez said the organization “is at a crossroads” due to increasing costs connected to the tower, which was completed in 1894 and held up to 250,000 gallons until being decommissioned in 1963.

“We have to decide what’s in the best interest of the council,” Chavez said. “Our board determined we should look at it for the next six months. If we can’t close the gap in operations costs, we will close.”

That gap is $8,000, which Chavez said was mainly due to PG&E raising the business’ rates. The council operates the water tower as a gift shop, visitors’ center and tourist attraction from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The water tower is also a popular ArtHop destination. The arts council, which runs ArtHop, uses part of the space as an artists’ collective. One section is dedicated to displaying youth art.

About 3,000 people visited the tower last year.

“People come from all over to see it,” Chavez said. “We share the history of Fresno and guide people to other locations. It’s the most iconic structure in Fresno.”

Chavez said it costs about $19,000 annually to run the water tower. Volunteers and a part-time manager staff it. Powering the 109-foot-tall building is the primary cost, but the council must also pay for things like janitorial services and supplies for the volunteers.

The arts council has asked the city of Fresno, Fresno Chamber of Commerce and Fresno/Clovis Convention and Visitors Bureau for help, Chavez said.

“We provide a valuable service that aligns with those entities, so we asked for financial support,” Chavez said. The council did not receive any money from the organizations, so it is now looking into fundraising options such as a GoFundMe account.

In an emailed statement, Mayor Lee Brand said the city appreciates what the arts council does for the local community, which is why it leases the water tower to the organization rent-free.

“I wish we could do more, but the city has its own fiscal challenges,” Brand said, “which is why my priority is to restore staffing and services for police and fire, code enforcement and homelessness and streets and parks.”

City spokesman Mark Standriff added that should the arts council have to close the water tower, the city would actively market the property to potential new tenants.

Fresno Chamber President Nathan Ahle said he spoke to Chavez about a year ago and offered his advice on how to raise more money. He doesn’t recall being asked for money. Regardless, the chamber – also a nonprofit – would not be able to give any.

“We are happy to promote and support (the arts council) in any non-monetary way,” Ahle said. “I hope they can get it worked out.”

Exactly what the council needs to work out has caused some confusion.

Earlier this week, it was reported that an $8,000 increase in the tower’s PG&E rate led the council to ask the community for $8,000 – a claim that PG&E has since disputed.

“The Fresno Arts Council did change to a new rate earlier this year,” spokesman Denny Boyles said, “but their statement concerning the impact of the rate change on their overall bill is not consistent with their actual bills.”

The Bee obtained copies of the arts council’s financial records for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 fiscal years. The council paid $6,657 for utilities on the tower during the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Chavez said utilities costs for the 2016-17 fiscal year grew to $8,333 – a difference of around $1,600. Only about one-quarter of the $8,000 she is asking for is due to power cost increases, she added. The rest will go toward “increased operating costs,” including paying her on-site manager.

Both Boyles and Chavez said they have been working with other media outlets to get the reports corrected.

The art council’s rate increase was part of a statewide change to how businesses pay for their power, Boyles said. Businesses are now charged different rates depending on the time of day, which is designed to reduce the state’s overall energy demands during peak times.

The PG&E energy auditor assigned to the city of Fresno will soon visit the water tower to offer advice on how the arts council can lower its costs, Boyles added.

Other news reports noted that the city had given the arts council six months to pay its bills or the water tower would be closed. Chavez said this was not true, and the arts council is current on all bills. It was the council’s board of directors who gave her the order to either raise $8,000 or vacate the water tower.

That said, the arts council does not appear to be in any financial trouble. It reported a loss of more than $50,000 in 2014-15, but it ended the 2015-16 fiscal year with nearly $41,000 in the bank after expenses.

Regardless of what happens with the tower, Chavez said, the arts council is not at any risk of going bankrupt.

“It would just be a shame for it (the water tower) to close while we’re all working to improve downtown,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of work to make downtown a destination. The city and private investors have made this investment. It would be counter-intuitive to that mission to close.”