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Dollar Bank in control of August Wilson Center’s fate after sheriff’s sale

Tribune-Review
| Monday, November 3, 2014 1:17 p.m
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Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Eric Schaffer, second from left, attorney for Dollar Bank, attends a sheriff’s sale proceeding during which the August Wilson Center for African American Culture was bought by the bank on Monday, Nov. 3, 2014.
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Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Eric Schaffer, attorney for Dollar Bank, arrives at a sheriff’s sale during which the bank bought the August Wilson Center for African American Culture on Monday, Nov. 3, 2014.
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Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
David Franklin (left) attorney for hotel developer 980 Liberty Partners; Mark Nowak (center) attorney for the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority; and Beverly Weiss Manne, attorney for the center's receiver, attend a sheriff’s sale during which the August Wilson Center for African American Culture was sold to Dollar Bank on Monday, Nov. 3, 2014.
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Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Attorney Carolyn Duronio (left) attends a sheriff’s sale on Nov. 3, 2014 at which the August Wilson Center for African American Culture was sold to Dollar Bank. Duronio represents a foundation coalition that had hoped to take over the Downtown building and reopen the cultural arts nonprofit under new leadership.

Dollar Bank snapped up the August Wilson Center for African American Culture at a sheriff’s sale Monday, upending a foundation group’s plan to take over the Downtown building through a deal negotiated by the center’s receiver.

Foundation officials aim to buy the newly debt-free property directly from the bank. If they succeed, they will preserve their goal of reopening the shining, boat-shaped building to the public under new nonprofit leadership by mid-2015.

“We continue to work towards a resolution that enables the August Wilson Center to be safeguarded as the community asset that it is,” said John Ellis, spokesman for The Heinz Endowments, speaking on behalf of the Richard King Mellon Foundation and The Pittsburgh Foundation.

The bank’s stunning last-minute acquisition of the center marks an outcome that none of the parties involved in the yearlong real estate battle wanted.

“It’s unfortunate,” Beverly Weiss Manne, attorney for the center’s court-appointed receiver, said as she exited the courthouse.

The bank, which secured a $7.96 million mortgage judgment in June, picked up the building by paying $1,912.50 in taxes and costs associated with the sheriff’s sale.

Nobody else placed a bid during the auction in the Allegheny County Courthouse.

The foreclosure could be advantageous to the foundation group because it officially clears title to the property, including any liens from the security firm whose objections thwarted the city-backed foundation’s purchase from closing last week.

The August Wilson Center, named for the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright from the Hill District, was built with at least $17.4 million in taxpayer money and more than $20 million from foundations. It struggled to pay bills from the day its doors opened in 2009 and flopped in fewer than five years amid crippling debt.

Until Friday, the center was poised to go to a newly formed nonprofit under The Pittsburgh Foundation for $8.49 million, as part of an $8.85 million deal struck Sept. 29 by the bank, the receiver and the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority.

The foundation group put down a deposit of $590,000, the amount slated to go to receiver Judith K. Fitzgerald and her consultants and attorneys.

“Mayor (Bill) Peduto remains committed to the foundation-led plan to acquire the August Wilson Center and continue its nonprofit mission, and we look forward to negotiating directly with Dollar Bank toward a successful closing,” URA Chairman and Peduto chief of staff Kevin Acklin wrote in an email.

Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O’Toole signed a judicial sale order Oct. 21 that put the deal on track to close in time to avoid a foreclosure auction.

Then Bethel Park security firm International Investigative Services appealed to Superior Court, objecting to the sale over roughly $245,000 the center owes the firm. The threat of litigation dissuaded foundation attorneys from closing on time.

The foundation group can draw from $7.9 million available through a combination of public and private sources to buy the center from the bank. As part of the broader $8.85 million deal, the foundations agreed to pitch in $5.2 million and helped find $500,000 from undisclosed private sources.

The URA and Allegheny Regional Asset District committed a combined $3.15 million — $360,000 of which went to hotel developer 980 Liberty Partners in exchange for dropping its $9.5 million bid on the center.

An attorney appeared for 980 at the auction but made no offer; 980 partner Matthew Shollar has said he would be interested in pursuing a hotel project atop the two stories if URA and foundation officials invite the developer back into the discussion.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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