Conservator recommends Wilson Center sale

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Saying that saving the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture is “an impossible task,” court appointed conservator Judith Fitzgerald has recommended the property be sold and its assets liquidated to pay of its debts.

Fitzgerald had been trying to secure funding for the center from the Heinz Endowments, the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the McCune Foundation but was rejected.

“There is no financial support for continuing the long term operations of AWC, and AWC cannot operate without that support,” she wrote in her report submitted Jan. 21.

Fitzgerald, a former Bankruptcy judge appointed by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O’Toole, estimates the ACW debt at between $9.5 million and $10 million, the bulk of that being the $7 million owed to mortgage holder Dollar Bank.

Not only does the AWC not have the money to pay its debts, it also has no way to pay for exhibits and daily operations, or for a feasibility study.  It also cannot hire experts to develop a plan to make the building profitable.

Fitzgerald’s report indicates the foundations have proposals for the building, and have already pitched on to Dollar Bank that was rejected.  She is not at liberty to disclose the proposals, though perhaps one or two will be mentioned when she discusses her report with Dollar Bank representatives and Judge O’Toole Jan. 24.

Former Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director and AWC founding member Mulugetta Birru called for additional intervention from the state Attorney General Kathleen Kane.

The center named for the Black, Pittsburgh-born Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright opened in 2009 with the help of $17.4 million in tax dollars, but it has struggled with budget deficits.

Fitzgerald noted the bank has paid the center’s utilities and insurance since filing for foreclosure in September.

“The court charged the conservator with conducting a thorough investigation and her report shows that she has done just that,” Dollar Bank attorney Eric Schaffer said. “The conservator’s conclusions appear to be well-founded.”

Many leaders in the city’s Black community have lamented the findings and complained the center is being rushed into foreclosure. County Councilman Bill Robinson, a Democrat, has even suggested the center seek funding from Black entertainers.

Kimberly Ellis, an arts management consultant who directs the Historic Hill Institute, which seeks to preserve the city’s historically Black Hill District, said the community should step up pressure to save the center.

“There are absolutely national and international stakeholders in the August Wilson Center and they probably have never been contacted,” Ellis said. “They should be given the opportunity to step forward.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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