Written by Gabriel Dillard
The Fresno Bee is exploring the sale of its Downtown Fresno headquarters and hoping to remain downtown in a more modern office befitting a 21st century media operation.
That’s the word from Publisher Tom Cullinan, who confirmed The Bee is in “the very early shopping stages” for a new home. He said he has looked at a handful of downtown buildings, and even property in Northeast Fresno “for comparison.”
“We would like to stay downtown because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
While a final decision could be a year away, Cullinan said the paper’s current 300,000 square-foot facility at 1626 E. St., is just “way too much space.” The Bee has been there since the early ‘80s, he added, and at its peak it housed upward of 800 employees.
With parent company McClatchy moving The Bee’s printing operations to Sacramento last year, and other McClatchy downsizing initiatives, today there’s about 200 people working in The Bee building.
They use about 30,000 square feet of space, he said, or 10 percent of the facility.
Other McClatchy newspapers, including the San Luis Obispo Tribune and Charlotte Observer, have also sold off property in recent years. Cullinan pointed to the new Charlotte Observer offices as a model for what The Bee is looking for in a new home. It features an open layout with more natural light, wide-screen monitors in every meeting room and a newsroom media wall consisting of a dozen 60-inch monitors.
“For our next move, we want to look more like a modern digital media company,” Cullinan said.
He added that adequate parking for Bee employees is another important factor in finding a new downtown home.
Cullinan said at this point other options are on the table, including selling The Bee building and then leasing it back from the new owner with renovations.
Bitwise Industries CEO Jake Soberal, whose business interests have moved into Downtown Fresno real estate in a big way, toured Cullinan around some available locations, including the former 8,000 square-foot Bitwise headquarters in the Mural District. He said when he heard The Bee was looking to move, he began imagining ways to keep the paper downtown.
In January, Soberal announced plans to renovate two downtown warehouse buildings — the 100,000 square-foot State Center Warehouse and the 50,000 square foot former Old Spaghetti Factory building near Highway 41.
“All of a sudden we have proven the viability of this market,” Soberal said in an interview Friday.
He added that by the end of 2018, his partnership should have about 300,000 square feet of downtown space available for lease. He said global corporations including Amazon and Google have expressed interest in Downtown Fresno’s tech hub as a potential home for operations.
“We are talking to virtually all of the household names,” Soberal said.
If The Bee moves, it would be to only the third home for the newspaper, which was first published in 1922. Before its current headquarters, it was located in the historic Fresno Bee Building at 1545 Van Ness Ave., which would go on to house the former Fresno Metropolitan Museum and currently the Community Media Access Collaborative, or CMAC.
Cullinan said selling the current headquarters would also save The Bee expenses in maintaining such a large building. But he added the deal could be complicated. Last year McClatchy contributed a portfolio of six of its real estate holdings to its defined benefit pension plan, including the Fresno headquarters.
Independent appraisals at the time valued the six properties — including three in North Carolina, one in Mississippi and one in Florida — at $47.1 million combined.
He declined to say how much The Bee building is appraised for, but he seemed hopeful it could generate interest.
“It’s a big building to buy,” Cullinan said. “But it may be part of someone’s business model.”