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Attorney General seeks new conservator to save August Wilson Center

Debra Erdley
| Friday, Jan. 24, 2014, 5:27 p.m.

The Pennsylvania attorney general wants a Pittsburgh lawyer to win court permission for one last chance to save the debt-ridden August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

Calling it “an empty building, essentially with an empty bank account,” E.J. Strassburger, a partner with Strassburger McKenna Gutnick & Gefsky, Downtown, told Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O'Toole on Friday that he would like to try to salvage the center before the court rules on a conservator's motion to sell it and liquidate its assets.

Strassburger is the president of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and said he has served as president of several nonprofit organizations.

The surprise request by Deputy Attorney General Sandra Renwand happened at a hearing as court-appointed conservator Judith K. Fitzgerald, a retired bankruptcy judge, pressed for permission to sell the center and pay off $9.5 million to $10 million in debts.

O'Toole said he expects to rule by Monday.

“I am a third-generation lawyer. ... I have been practicing since 1971. In my spare time I am committed to trying to make the world a better place,” Strassburger told the court.

The center opened in debt in 2009 because of cost overruns and fundraising shortfalls. It failed to attract projected attendance, and deficits rose.

The Attorney General's Office, which has oversight of charitable organizations in Pennsylvania, filed papers seeking a financial accounting from the center last fall, noting the $40 million facility was built with $17.4 million in public money.

Fitzgerald, whom the court appointed to oversee affairs at the Downtown arts center on Nov. 18, said she regretted that her attempts to salvage the facility, named for Pittsburgh native and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson, had failed.

She described the finances of the center as “dire.” Not only was the center in default on its $7.06 million mortgage, but others were threatening legal action because of past-due bills. Accounting was months overdue, and approximately $85,000 in withholding taxes were withheld but never paid, Fitzgerald said.

When she warned board members that they might be personally liable for debts because their liability insurance had expired, Fitzgerald said, all of them agreed to resign. Later she said she was forced to reduce the staff to three from nine to cut costs.

Fitzgerald said she was repeatedly rebuffed when she sought money to reorganize from foundations and government agencies that had funded the center for years. She said three foundations proposed to buy the building for $4 million and assume control of operations through the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, but Dollar Bank rebuffed the offer.

She has been working 13 to 16 hours a day at the facility, seeking to cut expenses, generate income and keep it afloat, Fitzgerald said. Each event held there since she took over lost money, she said.

“I really regret this. I do not think this is the best thing for the community or the city of Pittsburgh,” she said, adding that the bank is subject to regulators and must be paid.

Strassburger testified that he would hire Janera Solomon of the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty as executive director and appoint an advisory board of respected and connected individuals to restore the foundation community's and the Regional Asset District's confidence in the Wilson Center.

“I would put together a board connected to the foundation community and that would engender the confidence of the foundation community, and I would reconvene the people who raised so much money before,” Strassburger testified.

Several founding members of the center, including former Pittsburgh City Councilman Sala Udin, joined August Wilson's niece Kimberly Ellis and members of the arts community in pleading with O'Toole to consider Strassburger's appointment and give them more time to raise money.

Mitch Swain, CEO of the Pittsburgh Arts Council, told O'Toole that the issue is attracting international attention to a city with racial issues.

“This is a larger issue than just the August Wilson Center, just one institution. The eyes of the United States, the eyes of the world are on us. This is a very large issue in terms of the credibility of our region,” Swain said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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