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Foundations drop bid for August Wilson Center

| Monday, April 21, 2014, 3:44 p.m.

A coalition of foundations withdrew its offer to buy the debt-ridden August Wilson Center for African American Culture on Monday but is sponsoring a study of black arts and cultural programming in the region and expects to begin a nonprofit group to attract more of it.

A Pittsburgh Foundation spokesman, speaking on behalf of the coalition, said the decision to exit the Wilson Center sweepstakes occurred after the center's court-appointed receiver, former bankruptcy judge Judith K. Fitzgerald, indicated in a court filing that its bid was not her first choice. The gleaming $40 million Downtown center was built with $17.4 million in taxpayer money.

“Unfortunately, it is clear from her report that the receiver prefers an alternative bid that will transfer ownership of the Center's iconic facility to a commercial enterprise,” foundation spokesman John Ellis said in a prepared statement. “Contrary to statements made by the receiver in her report to the Orphans' Court, if the foundation consortium's bid had been successful, the participating foundations always intended for the August Wilson Center to be used for its original purpose, as a premier home for African American arts and culture programs.”

Ellis declined further comment. Fitzgerald said she was surprised by the foundations' withdrawal but will continue to try to sell the center by the end of June, as the court has ordered. She plans to meet with invited members of the black community at 8:30 a.m. April 29 at the center to get their input.

The consortium, which sources said consisted of the Richard King Mellon Foundation and The Heinz Endowments, offered $4 million for the Liberty Avenue facility. The three foundations have invested more than $20 million in the building and operation of the center, the statement from Ellis said. As a result, the group said, it is sponsoring a community study to determine how best to structure such programming in the future.

Janera Solomon, executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty, will lead the study and meet next week with Mikki Shepard, executive producer of the Apollo Theater in New York. The foundations will consider sponsoring African-American programming in a variety of venues, including the Kelly Strayhorn.

The three foundations expect to support a new nonprofit group that will be developed from the study to bring “exciting and engaging African American arts and culture programming in the region,” the statement said.

J. Kevin McMahon, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, said his organization would favor such an effort.

“The Cultural Trust and I continue to be very supportive of anything that can work toward the continuation of the original mission and vision of the August Wilson Center,” McMahon said.

Fitzgerald released a report on Thursday to the court detailing four bids for the Wilson center. Without identifying the potential buyers, she cited the foundations' offer of $4 million; two commercial groups offering $3.25 million and $4.5 million, respectively, to buy the building and liquor license; and her preferred bid, $9.5 million from a company to build commercial space above the facility.

The highest bid would go toward paying off the center's debt of nearly $10 million, including $7 million to Dollar Bank, and allow the center to 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 sum.

The foundations said Fitzgerald's report portrayed a “curiously inaccurate and pejorative depiction” of the intent of their bid. They contended that the highest bid would give the center only limited access to its theater and create an arrangement that might preclude it from receiving charitable dollars in the future.

Mitch Swain, CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, said he was surprised that the foundations withdrew their bid but that he shared their misgivings about the $9.5 million offer.

“I'm concerned that the August Wilson Center would be a part-time operation in a facility like that,” he said.

Fitzgerald was appointed conservator and later receiver to sell the center's assets and pay its debts after Dollar Bank went to court to foreclose on it. The center had failed to pay its mortgage and insurance last year.

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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