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Wilson Center sales agreement would limit use of theater, office space

| Wednesday, June 4, 2014, 3:15 p.m.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh's August Wilson Center for African American Culture, named for the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright from the Hill District, opened in 2009 with the help of $17.4 million in taxpayer money. It quickly accumulated debt because of cost overruns and insufficient fundraising for construction.

If a New York developer buys the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, the nonprofit would have access to its theater for at least a third of the year but be given limited space for operations, according to a sales agreement filed on Wednesday.

The agreement, signed on May 27 by Judith K. Fitzgerald, the center's court-appointed receiver, and Matthew Shollar, a local representative of 980 Liberty Partners, details for the first time how the debt-ridden nonprofit arts center would function after the sale and what obligations 980 would have to keep the center under its roof.

“If we're going to end up with gallery space that's named for August Wilson in a hotel lobby, that's not what the community invested in,” Janera Solomon, a member of the August Wilson Center Recovery Committee and executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty, told the Tribune-Review last week.

Although 980 agreed in principle to buy the building for $9.5 million, the company has 60 days from May 27 to conduct engineering and architectural studies to determine whether building a 200-room hotel on top is feasible. If not, Shollar has said, his company will back out of the deal. Neither he nor Fitzgerald could be reached for comment after the agreement was filed.

In addition to leasing the theater to a reorganized August Wilson Center for at least 120 days a year, for $1 per ticket sold, the sales agreement requires 980 to establish a first-floor gallery/exhibition space to allow daytime public access and provide “limited space within the building” for administrative offices and gallery storage.

Critics of 980's proposal — including Mayor Bill Peduto, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and three foundations — question whether the developer would keep the mission of the cultural center at the forefront.

Peduto spokesman Tim McNulty declined comment. Fitzgerald said his desire for more community involvement hasn't changed.

“At this point, I think it would be a huge mistake if this were allowed to go through,” he said. “I think there are too many unanswered questions.”

The $40 million center named for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Hill District playwright was built with $17.4 million in taxpayer money.

The city's Urban Redevelopment Authority and state attorney general's office oppose the 980 plan, citing concern about investors violating deed covenants that the URA says limit use of the building to a nonprofit black cultural center.

If the sale is finalized, the cultural center would lease space for five years. It would have the option of renewing four more times, at five years each. During the 60-day due-diligence period, 980 Liberty Partners must secure financing for the proposed hotel and within 30 days provide a $50,000 deposit toward the sale.

The agreement gives the center's receiver the right to continue discussions to obtain a “back-up bidder” in case the sale falls through.

A consortium of nonprofits led by The Pittsburgh Foundation initially submitted a $4 million bid but withdrew when 980 outbid it. The nonprofits recently upped their offer to $5 million.

Adam Brandolph is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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