Mayor, county executive question bid for August Wilson Center

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PITTSBURGH (AP) – A dispute erupted Tuesday over efforts to save Pittsburgh’s bankrupt August Wilson Center for African-American Culture.

Pittsburgh’s mayor and the county executive asked a local judge to remove the conservator who has been handling bids for the downtown building and its contents. The joint statement from Mayor William Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald came after three foundations said Monday that they were withdrawing a bid.

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County Executive Rich Fitzgerald

Peduto and Fitzgerald said they are concerned that court-appointed conservator Judith Fitzgerald “has favored a commercial approach (and) has not presented any significant plan to preserve the mission of the center.” They also said they “strongly support the previous bid submitted by the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and the Richard King Mellon Foundation.”

The foundations had said Fitzgerald, who is not related to the county executive, appeared to favor a higher bid for the property and persisting would be “futile.”

The $40 million center, which was built using $17.4 million in taxpayer money, opened in 2009. It honors the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who grew up in Pittsburgh, and hosted jazz concerts, plays, dance, art exhibits, films and other cultural events. But the construction went far over budget and the center faced daunting debts from the day it opened.

A judge recently approved selling off its downtown building to settle a mortgage default and other debts totaling about $10 million.

The conservator said two of the three other bids fall into the dining and entertainment category while the fourth is from a developer who wants to build commercial space on top of the building.

Fitzgerald, a former bankruptcy judge, said in an interim report last week that the developer’s bid could be “very attractive to the city, the county and the African-American community in Pittsburgh,” because the proposed commercial addition could subsidize arts-related programing. Fitzgerald said the developer is offering free gallery, office and storage space to the center, which would be able to use the theater for at least 120 days a year at a nominal fee.

The foundations, however, voiced “significant concerns” about the idea, saying it “would apparently give the center only limited access to its own theater and create an arrangement whose eligibility for future charitable funding is questionable at best.”

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JUDGE JUDITH K. FITZGERALD

Fitzgerald said the foundations’ offer would in effect form a new nonprofit entity “of an undefined mission, somehow related to African-American culture.” But the foundations said they had always intended for the center to be used for its original purpose “as a premier home for African-American arts and culture programs.”

Orphans’ Court Judge Lawrence O’Toole has the final say over which bid is accepted for the center, as well as whether to appoint a new conservator for the bankruptcy process.

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