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August Wilson Center's fate unclear as deadline passes

Monday, March 31, 2014, 10:51 p.m.
 

The deadline to make an offer to help the cash-starved August Wilson Center for African American Culture passed on Monday, but its fate isn't any clearer.

Lawyer E.J. Strassburger said he and his group of would-be rescuers are waiting patiently.

“Are we nervous? Yeah, we're a little bit nervous. You're always nervous about what you can't control,” Strassburger said.

Court-appointed receiver Judith K. Fitzgerald set the end of March as the deadline for bidders to make preliminary offers, but she did not respond to numerous phone calls asking if she has received offers.

Strassburger, a partner with Strassburger McKenna Gutnick & Gefsky, Downtown, wants to revive the center but said he and his group are in no position to buy it.

“We want to engender some confidence in the people who would be running the show — a new manager, new board, new management team,” he said. “You got to have a vision. You got to have a business plan, and you (must) have people to implement it.”

Dollar Bank went to court last year to foreclose on the center in an attempt to recover more than $7 million in debt when the center failed to pay its mortgage and insurance obligations.

Judge Lawrence O'Toole of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas at first appointed Fitzgerald as conservator in a last-ditch attempt to save the center. He later switched her role to receiver to sell off its assets and pay its bills when she could find no foundation or government agency willing to pick up its tab.

The center, named for the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright from the Hill District, opened in 2009 on Liberty Avenue, Downtown.

The nonprofit group owes about $10 million, mostly because of cost overruns and insufficient fundraising.

Eric Schaffer, attorney for Dollar Bank, and Sandra Mackey Renwand, senior deputy attorney general, declined to comment. The Attorney General's Office intervened on behalf of Pennsylvania taxpayers. The state paid $17.4 million of the center's construction costs of at least $40 million.

Strassburger said a group interested in buying the center might want Fitzgerald to extend the deadline. He has not heard if that has happened.

Another entity awaiting word of the center's fate is the Allegheny Regional Asset District.

The district supports parks, libraries, stadiums and cultural groups with half of the proceeds of an additional 1 percent sales tax in Allegheny County. The district's board of directors has withheld $225,000 — a portion of the center's 2013 grant — in escrow until the center straightens out its finances and holds another $300,000 for the center in 2014 in a contingency fund in case its situation improves.

“I would assume by the end of the year, the situation will clarify,” said David Donahoe, the district's executive director. “It doesn't affect anything here for now.”

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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