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Financially troubled August Wilson Center attracts 4 investment proposals

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By Bill Zlatos
Thursday, April 17, 2014, 5:33 p.m.

Four offers to buy the debt-ridden August Wilson Center range from $3.25 million to $9.5 million, with the highest bid paying off all creditors and preserving the center's mission as a venue for African-American culture.

“We are fortunate that we have received these bids, and they are currently being evaluated in terms of the capability to address the organization's mission,” Judith K. Fitzgerald, the Downtown center's court-appointed receiver, said in a news release. Fitzgerald on Thursday filed a report in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court detailing the offers.

Although the report does not identify the bidders, Fitzgerald said the highest offer came from a company that wants to build commercial space above the existing structure on Liberty Avenue. She said it was the only offer that would pay off the center's liens and other debts, estimated at $10 million. Of that, $7 million is owed to Dollar Bank, which tried to foreclose on the center last year when it failed to pay its mortgage and insurance.

The $9.5 million offer preserves the center itself. The buyer would obtain the building's liquor license and pay off the center's debt while letting it use the existing gallery, offices and storage space for free. The center could use the theater for at least 120 days or nights a year for a nominal amount.

Fitzgerald said the proposal could be “very attractive to the city, the county and the African-American community in Pittsburgh, because the commercial operations will generously subsidize the center and bring tax benefits to the city and county.”

Two other offers are from commercial groups that would buy the building and liquor license for $4.5 million and $3.25 million, respectively. They would use part of the building for restaurants, bars and entertainment and possibly add a rooftop garden.

The last offer is for $4 million from a group of charitable foundations. Sources identified them as The Pittsburgh Foundation, The Heinz Endowments and the Richard King Mellon Foundation. They would dissolve the old nonprofit group and start a new one that would promote African-American culture.

Eric Schaffer, an attorney for Dollar Bank, had no comment on the report. John Ellis, a spokesman for The Pittsburgh Foundation, also declined to comment.

Financial problems plagued the $40 million center, named for the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright from the Hill District, from its opening in 2009. The center did not raise enough money to cover its construction costs and cost overruns. The court appointed Fitzgerald as a conservator in a last-ditch effort to save the center and later as a receiver to sell off its assets to pay its debts. The Attorney General's Office intervened on behalf of taxpayers, who paid $17.4 million in state money to build it.

Fitzgerald asked the community for help in the selection of a bidder. The ultimate decision comes from the Orphans' Court.

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