Charter school eyes Fresno Met site

A new charter high school in central Fresno could become the anchor tenant in the historic downtown building that once housed the Fresno Metropolitan Museum.

The Academy for Civic and Entrepreneurial Leadership, which opened its doors last year, could take over at least two floors of the city-owned building on Van Ness Avenue.

Dave Childers, principal of the college-prep charter school known as ACEL, said Wednesday he has been talking to city officials about a possible lease. He estimated the school might be able to pay up to $15,000 a month for the space. That would be less than the city's current expenses on the building, but far more than the museum paid -- which was nothing.

"It's a great location. It's a great building. It's an important part of Fresno," Childers said. "We're an organization that wants to be an important part of Fresno, so I think it makes a lot of sense."

Craig Scharton, director of the city's Downtown and Community Revitalization Department, declined to detail the discussions with ACEL, but said charter schools are an important part of his downtown revitalization plans.

"The more options we have for people, the more likely people will live and work downtown," Scharton said.

Met officials announced Tuesday they were immediately closing the museum doors for good, citing financial problems.

The city took title to the building, former home to The Bee, and surrounding property late last year after paying off a defaulted $15 million bank loan for the museum.

City officials had been preparing for the Met's closure for several reasons:

-- They need a "public benefit" tenant in the building to have any hope of getting $4 million from a federal tax-credit program. Such a tenant generally is a nonprofit.

-- They need somebody who can pay rent. The Met was supposed to pay $1,000 a month, but City Hall got nothing because the museum collapsed before the two sides could sign a lease.

-- They can't afford the public relations black eye of a vacant building that is supposed to be the focal point of the cultural arts district.

The city needs to generate money from its Met investment because it's struggling with financial woes, too.

The city borrowed from its own treasury to pay the bank loan, and must repay itself by June 30. City Manager Andy Souza on Tuesday estimated that interest on the internal loan is accruing at about $25,000 per month.

Souza said the city hopes to get $4 million from the tax-credit program to apply toward its Met-connected debt. With other bills, the debt is now about $16 million, Souza said.

The city then hopes to get short-term financing for the balance -- about $12.5 million. Souza estimated the interest-only, seven-year deal would cost the city $500,000 to $600,000 a year.

After seven years, the city would secure longer-term financing on a debt that could be much reduced if city-owned property surrounding the former Met building is sold or leased to developers.

With good tenants, Souza said, "it will be a vibrant building."

Souza said the five-story building has about 36,000 square feet of floor space. He said a fair monthly rent might be $10,000 to $12,000 per floor.

Souza said the city is talking to other potential tenants, including the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame and the Pop Laval Foundation.

Childers said ACEL currently has only a ninth-grade class of about 50 students. He said the plan is to add another ninth-grade class each year, eventually growing into a four-year high school with an estimated 320 students.

Childers said ACEL next school year probably would need two floors, with room to expand as enrollment grows.

He said the school, which receives public funding, must watch its budget but might be able to handle a $15,000 monthly rent for two floors. Childers said he also is looking at other potential downtown sites.

Childers said ACEL, which aims to nurture a sense of civic commitment in its students, would be a worthy successor to the museum -- if the price is right.

"We're not looking for a handout," Childers said. "We're looking to be a tenant."