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Group seeking to save Wilson Center takes fight to court

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Monday, May 12, 2014, 11:24 a.m.

A group holding community meetings on how to save the debt-ridden August Wilson Center for African American Culture took its fight to court, urging a judge to decide that any sale of the building and land must be for a black cultural center.

Janera Solomon, executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty and a member of the August Wilson Center Recovery Committee, filed documents last week in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court in support of the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority. The URA contends that if the court approves a $9.5 million sale to a private developer, it would violate the center's founding covenant because the center would not own the land or building.

“We don't have $9.5 million, but we believe we can find a solution to this by getting the stakeholders together and working through it,” Solomon said.

A coalition of foundations is funding the committee's work. The coalition bid $4 million for the center but withdrew the offer because the court-appointed receiver said she preferred the $9.5 million bid, the highest.

“We remain waiting for the judge to decide what he thinks should happen,” said Matthew Shollar, a partner in 980 Liberty Partners of New York, which submitted the bid for the building, air rights and liquor license. In exchange, it would give the center free use of the gallery, office and storage space. The center could use the theater for a nominal fee, such as $1 for every ticket sold.

Two other commercial enterprises bid $3.25 million and $4.5 million for the building and its liquor license. Their identities have not been disclosed.

Solomon asked Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O'Toole to “invite the foundations back to the table ... to reach a community-sensitive solution.”

“Nothing really important happens in this city without foundation support,” Solomon said.

John Ellis, a spokesman for The Pittsburgh Foundation, said the foundations remain committed to the center's mission.

“The foundations have not altered their position in wanting the August Wilson Center's mission to be safeguarded if it's at all possible, and we're watching developments with interest.”

The URA and Dollar Bank, the center's largest creditors, declined to comment. The receiver, former bankruptcy judge Judith K. Fitzgerald, could not be reached for comment.

The Downtown center, named for the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright from the Hill District, is about $10 million in debt. The bank sought to foreclose on the center last year when it failed to make mortgage and insurance payments.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald reiterated his opposition, and that of Mayor Bill Peduto, to the high offer.

“Bill and I have been very clear that there needs to be a process supported by the community, and it's got to include the mission of the August Wilson Center. That bid does not,” Fitzgerald said.

He said he and the mayor would consider a commercial option, even a hotel, as long as it is consistent with the August Wilson Center's mission.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.



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