Conservator recommends liquidating Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center
With its coffers nearly empty and no financial savior, the August Wilson Center for African American Culture should be sold and its debts paid, the center’s court-appointed conservator said — a move that would close the curtain on an arts facility built to celebrate black heritage and revitalize a blighted section of Liberty Avenue.
“The conservator regretfully must advise the court that there is simply no continued viability of AWC as it currently exists,” wrote conservator Judith K. Fitzgerald, a retired bankruptcy judge.
As conservator, she manages the center’s financial affairs.
In a motion on Tuesday to Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O’Toole, she asked that her duties be changed to allow her to sell the building and its assets, or arrange long-term leases.
She said liquidating the assets would help pay off claims, which she estimated at $9.5 million to $10 million.
The center, named for the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright from the Hill District, opened in 2009 with the help of $17.4 million in taxpayer money but quickly accumulated debt because of cost overruns and insufficient fundraising for construction.
Fitzgerald’s recommendation stunned black leaders.
“This should send a chill through everyone who believes the August Wilson Center was being saved and should continue,” said Allegheny County Councilman Bill Robinson, who has suggested state and county officials find public cash to help the center.
He said officials should seek help from black entertainers such as Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby and Harry Belafonte.
“I appreciate the support of the foundations and our corporate community, but if (the center) does not survive, our community will be impacted not only culturally, but also economically and politically,” he said
The August Wilson Center owes Dollar Bank more than $7 million. When the center failed to pay its mortgage and insurance last year, the bank sought to foreclose on it. The Attorney General’s office intervened.
“The conservator has done what she was charged to do,” said Eric Schaffer, an attorney for Dollar Bank. “She has done her investigation. It’s a wonderful building. It will be there in some form, I’m sure.”
Senior Deputy Attorney General Sandra Mackey Renwand referred a request for an interview to the Harrisburg office, but it did not respond.
Mayor Bill Peduto could not be reached for comment.
The Tribune-Review has warned of the center’s burdensome debt and deficits for years. A July 22, 2011, letter to the editor from Aaron A. Walton, then-chairman of the center’s board, criticized the coverage and discussed what he called the center’s “perceived problems.”
“We are working diligently with banks and key stakeholders on a plan that will allow us to restructure and eventually retire this debt in a timely manner,” he wrote, adding that he expected to have a balanced budget in fiscal 2011.
The center ended fiscal 2012 with a deficit of $1.8 million.
Fitzgerald called the center’s financial condition “dire.” She said that certain required employee withholdings and benefit payments were deducted from employee wages but never turned over to the appropriate entity.
“If the center can raise enough money and develop a strategic business plan to show how to meet its debt service and how to retire or restructure it, then the center has a mission and I think it could survive. But as I sit here today, those are a lot of ifs,” Fitzgerald said in an interview.
A hearing is scheduled for 3 p.m. Friday before O’Toole on her request.
In November, lawyers for Attorney General Kathleen Kane filed a petition in Orphans’ Court asking for a full accounting of the center’s finances.
O’Toole approved consolidating that petition with Dollar Bank’s foreclosure proceeding on the nonprofit’s $40 million Downtown building.
In explaining her reasons for needing to sell or lease the center, Fitzgerald said she could not persuade the Allegheny Regional Asset District or foundations to renew their support. The foundation community and RAD, which supports the operations of libraries, parks, stadiums and cultural groups with tax money, held up funds when the center failed to produce a timely audit.
“It’s unfortunate that she criticizes the level of public and private support that the center has received,” said RAD Executive Director David Donahoe, noting that the agency has given the center more than $3.5 million since 1998.
The request to sell off the center brought a strong reaction from former Pittsburgh URA Director Mulugetta Birru, one of its early supporters.
“This is being rushed beyond conscience,” he said. “I am not hearing voices in the Greater Pittsburgh community. I wonder if the (Senator John Heinz) History Center or the Benedum was being shut down what people would say.”
J. Kevin McMahon, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and Wilson’s niece, Kimberly Ellis, continued to express hope for the center.
“I know it seems very difficult at this moment,” McMahon said. “I still believe there’s a very good opportunity here for our whole community to come together.”
Ellis, an arts and education management consultant who directs the Historic Hill Institute, called for the community to speak up and apply pressure.
“There are absolutely national and international stakeholders in the August Wilson Center and they probably have never been contacted. They should be given the opportunity to step forward. Pittsburgh is just too small to contain August Wilson, let alone the August Wilson Center,” she said.