August Wilson Center future still in limbo

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Almost immediately after August Wilson Center bankruptcy receiver Judith Fitzgerald announced that a hotel developer had submitted a $9.5 million bid that would not only pay off mortgage holder Dollar Bank, but also satisfy the debts owed to other creditors, including contractors—some of whom are Black—while preserving the building and its mission, the objections began.

First came Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald (no relation) and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto asking bankruptcy Judge Lawrence O’Toole to fire Fitzgerald for rejecting a bid they favored by local foundations that was 47 percent lower and did not outline a revenue stream.

Then there was an alphabet soup of community and arts entities, some newly formed, that objected to not being consulted by Fitzgerald, again favoring the foundations’ bid. Fitzgerald attempted to reach out to some of these entities with a meeting at the center last week, introducing the high bidder’s local principal Matthew Shollar.

He said their plan was to build a 200-room luxury hotel above the center, preserving the building and maintaining “significant gallery space” and the theater for use by the center for a minimum of 120 days per year.

“Carrying a 65,000 square foot facility with the level of participation that the center has received over time is untenable and clearly didn’t work. We’d create a revenue stream and relieve the cost to allow fundraising and outreach to focus on programming and bringing many more people into the center, of course there’d be a captive base of people in the hotel,” Shollar said. “This unique opportunity both solve the issue the center has fallen into, and benefit the city in a meaningful way by creating tax dollars, 100 full-time jobs and a full-time home for the center without the crushing debt. We see this as a very open collaborative process.”

Shollar also noted that the original 2006 operational plan for the center included a provision for additional development.

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Community members young and old including Paradise Gray, Tim Stevens and Sala Udin write down down some ideas during meeting. Courier Photo/J.L. Martello)

Black Political Empowerment Project Chairman Tim Stevens called that meeting “an important moment.”

“What I’m hearing is that this proposal covers everything that needs to be covered, including African-American contractors and that this developer is willing to keep the center going and cover the cost of operation,” he said. “At least this developer is open to keeping it alive, but what percentage of this building will remain the AWC, and is this in perpetuity? If this really is the deal, how do we go forward so we get the best deal we can for the August Wilson Center and its future and keep its focus as it was meant to be and physically keep as much space as possible?”

That, Stevens and Shollar both noted, depends on a structural engineering report on the feasibility of the design. But now, that may not matter either, as state Attorney General Kathleen Kane and the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh are also petitioning Judge O’Toole to reject the bid from Shollar’s 980 Liberty Partners group.

In a joint motion filed May 5, Kane and the URA said covenants in the original property deed prevent the hotel plan from going forward. Kane said one stipulates that the property must be maintained as an African American Cultural Center and the 980 Partners plan “lacks detail” about that beyond a nebulous 5-year licensing agreement.

Shollar said last week he envisioned the arrangement to go on in perpetuity. Center founding member Sala Udin, distributed fliers outside that meeting saying the arrangement would make the center a “sharecropper on Massa’s plantation.”

The other covenant, cited by the URA, states that the exterior of the building cannot be altered without the authority’s consent.  In its filing the URA says the 980 Partners plan “grossly alters the exterior…including masking all sides but the front sail-like piece.”

The URA favors the $4.5 million foundations bid. Kane asked Judge O’Toole for more time to allow the foundations and 980 Partners to put forth a bid that “would satisfy the use and structure restrictive covenants.”

That same evening at the Dance Alloy Studios, Kelly Strayhorn Theater Executive Director Janera Solomon hosted another in a series of meetings to gather community input on saving the center as an African-American cultural site.

“We don’t have $9.5 million but we have the support of the mayor and the county executive who consider it a public regional cultural asset,” she said. “The center is one of the best examples of people coming together; philanthropists, arts, foundations government to create something. All of that can’t be dismissed because we don’t have $9.5 million. Whoever the new owner turns out to be, they have a responsibility to listen to, and respond to, the community’s hopes and dreams about the center.”

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

 

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