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August Wilson Center receiver, DA strike deal to drop criminal charges | TribLIVE.com
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August Wilson Center receiver, DA strike deal to drop criminal charges

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Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
The August Wilson Center for African American Culture on Liberty Avenue.

It took an entire year, a controversial real estate deal and an unexpected criminal probe, but stagehand Christopher Barker will finally get the $2,895 the August Wilson Center for African American Culture failed to pay him.

“To be honest, I’m a little shocked,” said Barker, 28, of Dormont, who had given up on getting paid for 201 hours of work, most of which went into a two-week build-out for three events Oct. 17-20 in 2013. “I’m most excited about the center being able to reopen.”

Eleven months after falling into conservatorship amid crippling debt, the August Wilson Center is on track to reopen its reflective glass doors along Liberty Avenue to the public in mid-2015. That’s the goal of the coalition of foundations expected to secure a judicial sale on the Downtown property during an auction Monday in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

The $8.85 million city-backed foundation deal was jeopardized last week, when Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. vowed not to let the sale close until a group of 59 stagehands got paid $33,000 in overdue wages and benefits.

On Friday, Zappala announced he reached an agreement with court-appointed receiver Judith K. Fitzgerald that ensures the stagehands and their union get paid in full. The receiver started cutting checks to the union that morning. Individual stagehands are slated to get theirs via direct deposit or hard copy early next week, said a statement by the District Attorney’s office.

“Hopefully, that’s the last real impediment to getting the sale through,” Fitzgerald said.

To persuade Zappala to withdraw the charges, the receiver chose to sell the center’s liquor license — a piece of “personal property” the court gave her the right to liquidate — to pay the stagehands as well as the IRS.

The IRS had filed a claim for $44,000 in taxes, penalty and interest the center accrued prior to the receivership.

Fitzgerald, who stands to make $590,000 to share with her team of attorneys and consultants under the foundation deal, would not disclose the Pittsburgh business that purchased the license for roughly $86,000 until the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board approves the transfer. The proceeds will cover the stagehands, IRS debt and $9,000 owed to three artist fellows the center shorted $3,000 each.

If all goes smoothly, mortgage holder Dollar Bank will get $7.9 million, and 980 Liberty Partners will get $360,000 for agreeing to withdraw its $9.5 million bid. 980 wanted to build a 200-room hotel atop the building’s existing two stories and share space with the center — an alternative Mayor Bill Peduto and foundation officials argued would have “destroyed” the center and its mission as a black cultural nonprofit.

“With all the opposition and how long it could have taken if anybody had decided to file an appeal, (the 980 deal) could have been tied up for two or three years,” Fitzgerald said. “It just didn’t make sense to do that.”

The foundation deal leaves nothing for nearly $1 million worth of “unsecured creditors,” including a security firm, a mom-and-pop dry cleaners and theater equipment vendors.

“The one thing I do wish is that we were able to pay all the other creditors,” Fitzgerald said. “That other deal would have been able to do it, and I’m not happy about that, obviously, but it’s what it came to.”

In the deal expected to close by Oct. 31, the Pittsburgh Foundation, The Heinz Endowments and Richard King Mellon Foundation are putting in $5.2 million, and helped raise $500,000 from private sources. The URA is contributing $1.65 million, and the Allegheny Regional Asset District is considering pitching in $1.5 million.

“Obviously, we’re pleased that (stagehand) issue was resolved and the sale can proceed,” said John Ellis, spokesman for The Heinz Endowments.

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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