Former bankruptcy judge to take over management of Wilson Center
The fate of the financially troubled August Wilson Center for African American Culture depends on whether a retired federal bankruptcy judge can persuade former supporters of the center to reopen their wallets.
An Allegheny County judge on Monday appointed Judith K. Fitzgerald as conservator of the Downtown center. She will have the power to hire and fire staff, final say over center operations and authority to decide whether interim President and CEO Oliver Byrd remains in place.
Fitzgerald could not be reached for comment. Wilson attorney Stanley Levine expressed confidence in the center's future.
“We think we have a road map to have that credibility restored,” he said.
Loss of the longtime support of the Allegheny Regional Asset District illustrates the center's problems.
RAD tentatively declined to give the center $300,000 in 2014 and has withheld much of its funding this year. RAD supports parks, libraries, stadiums and cultural groups with half of the proceeds of an additional 1 percent sales tax in Allegheny County.
RAD Executive Director David Donahoe praised Fitzgerald's appointment.
“If she's a retired district bankruptcy judge, she sounds like a distinguished appointment, and we would look forward to working with her,” he said.
Jack Owen, an attorney with the Downtown firm of Rhoades & Owen who specializes in working with nonprofit groups, said Fitzgerald's work will be critical.
“If I was a (supporter) .... I'd want confidence that they had a good solid business plan and the right people in place to execute it,” he said. “I don't think anybody wants to see the August Wilson Center fail after all the money that's been thrown into it, but there would need to be a change.”
The Attorney General's Office, which last month asked for a full accounting of center finances and agreed to the appointment of Fitzgerald, has said $17.4 million in public money went toward construction of the center.
The center's board remains in place, but Mulugetta Birru, a nonvoting member and co-founder of the center, said it will be replaced. He laid out his priorities for Fitzgerald: Make a smooth transition to the new board, hire a national consultant to devise a good business model and affiliate with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust to manage the building but not the center's programs.
“If (Fitzgerald) can accomplish that in this short time, given the holidays, that would be a tremendous contribution to the August Wilson Center and its stakeholders,” said Birru, who is leading a group promoting an unnamed replacement for Byrd.
Fitzgerald will begin working with the current board. Chairman Aaron Walton said the board would offer its “full cooperation.”
Her appointment continues through Feb. 3. Dollar Bank, which initiated foreclosure proceedings on the center's $40 million building, agreed to provide $25,000 as her retainer.
The Meridian Group, a Downtown firm that specializes in corporate restructuring, will assist Fitzgerald with the center's finances.
The center is named for the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright from Pittsburgh. Dollar Bank foreclosed when the center defaulted on its $7.06 million mortgage and allowed insurance on its facility to lapse.
Fitzgerald of the North Hills was a bankruptcy judge for the Western District of Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh from 1987 until her retirement in May. She worked for nearly 14 years as assistant U.S. attorney in the Western District, handling civil and criminal cases, especially complex litigation and fraud. She earned her law degree from the University of Pittsburgh.
Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Pitt coach Narduzzi adds N.J. linebacker recruit
- Pitt notebook: Pitino: This year’s Pitt team not as talented as past years
- Mt. Lebanon High School to sell its planetarium equipment
- Storm could drop 4-6 inches of snow on Pittsburgh area
- Linemen commit to PSU, boosting Franklin’s recruiting class
- One of two Marines killed in chopper crash was from Indiana, Pa.
- Energy companies vie for experienced workers with skills in high demand
- Energy-saving tactics pay off in Green Workplace Challenge
- Bloomfield bookstore owner bucks naysayers
- U.N. Watch: Climate games
- Infrastructure improvements ‘critically important,’ House Speaker Boehner tells ‘60 Minutes’