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Former bankruptcy judge to take over management of Wilson Center

- Judith K. Fitzgerald was appointed conservator of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture on Monday.
Judith K. Fitzgerald was appointed conservator of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture on Monday.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review - Pedestrians walk near the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Downtown. The center opened on Liberty Avenue in 2009.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review</em></div>Pedestrians walk near the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Downtown. The center opened on Liberty Avenue in 2009.

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Monday, Nov. 18, 2013, 2:36 p.m.
 

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 bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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