Despite last minute pleas, Wilson Center to be sold

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Despite last minute pleas from civil rights activists, a local attorney, the state attorney general and family members of August Wilson, the debt-ridden African-American cultural center named for the late playwright has been ordered sold.

Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O’Toole approved a request from court-appointed conservator to change her status to liquidator so she can sell the center’s assets in an attempt to recover its $9.5 million to $10 million in debts.

Judith Fitzgerald, herself a former bankruptcy judge, discussed her previously submitted report during a meeting in O’Toole’s courtroom Jan. 24, reiterating that while everyone says they want to see the center continue its mission, there is no money to support it in its current state.  There is not even a business plan that could be taken to potential funders.

“Everyone has the right words, but no one has put money behind the words,” she said.

O’Toole agreed with her assessment, and issued his order Jan. 27.

Buildings in downtown Pittsburgh are reflected in the windows of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture on Oct. 2. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Buildings in downtown Pittsburgh are reflected in the windows of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture on Oct. 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Tim Stevens, B-PEP founder and past NAACP Pittsburgh president who was among those at last week’s meeting, sent a last minute-letter to O’Toole asking for more time, and to allow attorney E. J. Strassberger, who had also been suggested by the attorney general’s office, to act as conservator for an additional 15 months.

Strassberger said last week his plan was to hire an executive director and appoint an advisory board. He said the center has a commercial kitchen, a patio and interior space that could be used to generate income.

Stevens said he agreed that Strassberger’s proposal was nebulous, but he was committed to keeping the facility as a center for Africa-American culture. He said he was “beyond devastated” to hear O’Toole’s decision.

“I was hopeful, given the attorney general’s recommendation of Mr. Strassberger, that the judge would go that way. He was patient during the (Jan. 24) meeting, and allowed everyone to speak,” Stevens said.

“If this isn’t resolved, it will go down as a bad day in African-American history, and in Pittsburgh history,” he added. “It would be crushing to see that building destroyed and something else put in its place. It would be heartbreaking, just thinking about it is heatbreaking.”

When the center opened in 2009, it was already in debt due to construction overruns, and never generated enough income to cover expenses. Its capital campaign also fell short of the target and it often charged nothing or very little for major performances.  A string of executive directors could neither increase revenue nor persuade the foundation community to increase funding.

The center renegotiated its $7-million mortgage with Dollar Bank, but then failed to make a single payment. The bank filed for foreclosure in September, but agreed to pay Fitzgerald and keep the building open while she sought a solution. Reed Smith attorney Eric Schafer, who represents Dollar Bank, thanked O’Toole for giving the issue a lot of attention and said he looks forward to working with interested parties.

Despite the ruling, Fitzgerald said if anyone comes forward with a plan to save the center that’s reasonable she’d consider it. But her attorney, Beverly Weiss Manne, stressed that it must address all the issues and can’t be a “kick-the-can-down-the-road plan.”

“That’s been the problem with the center for the last few years,” she said.

August Wilson’s niece, Kimberly Ellis, said Fitzgerald’s settlement had not been finalized as of the Jan.  25 meeting, but the tentative deal called for her to receive a 5 percent commission. If that’s the case, she said, Dollar Bank should modify that agreement.

Manne said Fitzgerald, who was advanced $25,000 by Dollar Bank in November for her time and expenses, would not receive a commission.

“She is entitled to her regular (attorney’s) fees,” said Manne. “It’s like an estate sale. She would be paid from the sale of the assets.”

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald told the Courier he and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto had been “working behind the scenes on a plan to save the center, but declined to offer any details. Peduto spokesperson Sonya Toler said the mayor still has no comment on the center.

Founding member of the center and former city Councilman Sala Udin declined multiple requests for comment.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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