Community leaders express concern over sale of August Wilson Center

If Judith Fitzgerald expected a ringing endorsement of a New York firm's bid to buy the August Wilson Center for African American Culture when she invited members of the African-American community to a meeting Tuesday, she picked the wrong crowd.

What she got instead was an earful from community leaders who raised a host of concerns about the proposed sale to 980 Liberty Partners and who chastised her for not bringing them into the effort to save the debt-plagued center sooner.

During the two-hour meeting at the Downtown center, some African-American leaders pressed Ms. Fitzgerald, the August Wilson Center conservator, for a seat at the table with her in finalizing the $9.5 million deal to make sure the center's mission is retained and that sufficient space is devoted to it.

Luxury hotel planned at August Wilson Center

Luxury hotel planned at August Wilson Center

"That is the only way we will survive," said the Rev. William Curtis, pastor of the Mount Ararat Baptist Church in Larimer. "If we don't do that, we will end up asking for what days can we use it, under what circumstances and what programs are permitted and not permitted."

Tim Stevens, chairman and CEO of the Black Empowerment Project, said the goal is to ensure that "the African-American culture center is not stuck in a corner."

Tuesday's meeting came a day after Ms. Fitzgerald asked Judge Lawrence O'Toole, of Allegheny County Common Pleas orphans' court, for approval to sell the building, its air rights and liquor license to 980 Liberty Partners, the highest of four bidders for the property.

She is seeking to do so to pay off $10 million in debts, including $7 million owed to Dollar Bank after the center defaulted on its mortgage last year.

The developer is proposing to build a 200-room hotel with perhaps as many as eight stories on top of the existing structure. It also is offering the center free gallery, office and storage space and use of the theater for at least 120 days a year. It also is hoping to create an ongoing revenue stream for the center to sustain it and plans to hire a curator to help develop the gallery space and exhibits.

"Our goal is very much to create a positive solution for the center going forward," said Matthew Shollar, a Squirrel Hill hospitality developer and consultant who is one of three partners at 980 Liberty Partners.

Mr. Shollar couldn't estimate how much space would be devoted to the center, saying that would be determined during a 60-day due diligence period. But he noted there likely would be a separate entrance to the center and its gallery and theater space and that the developer would be mindful of the structure's unique East African trade ship design in building the hotel.

"The goal is to try to have something that complements the existing building. We don't want to build something that would be unattractive," he said.

But many in attendance weren't sold on the proposal.

"It's one option. It's not the only option," said Nancy Washington, one of the August Wilson Center's founding members. She said she prefers a $4 million bid offered by the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and the Richard King Mellon Foundation. The consortium has since withdrawn the offer, saying it was clear that Ms. Fitzgerald preferred the higher bidder. Ms. Washington held out hope that the foundations would return to the table.

"A hotel wants to make money. It's here to make money, and when it stops making money those 120 days are going to go away, the theater is going to go away, that gallery space is going to go away because they have to make money. The foundations are set up to support nonprofits," she said.

City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, D-Hill District, also criticized the plan. He said the community should have been engaged earlier to decide what was the best option for the building.

"What I heard today is that, 'We decided what is best for you and now we will reach out to you to try to appease you to meet what we already decided is in your best interest,' " he said.

Mr. Lavelle joins Mayor Bill Peduto and county Executive Rich Fitzgerald in opposing the sale to 980 Liberty Partners. All three support the foundations' bid.

Ms. Fitzgerald, no relation to the county executive, apologized for not meeting with the community earlier but said one reason was that for a long time she simply was struggling to keep the center afloat amid mounting debt.

"It's like being an emergency room surgeon. You've got to stop the bleeding," she said. "If we made mistakes, we want to correct them now. If we were late coming to the table, nonetheless, we're at the table."

She said she would consider giving an African-American community leader a seat at the table in trying to work out a deal but first needed to discuss it with her counsel.

"From a personal point of view, I would welcome it," she said. "I hope we can make it work."

Judge O'Toole has given all the parties involved in the August Wilson Center court proceeding until Monday to respond to Ms. Fitzgerald's proposal to sell to 980 Liberty Partners.

One African-American leader who favored the sale was Allegheny County Councilman Bill Robinson, D-Hill District. "From a dollar and cents and a logical standpoint and to give the August Wilson Center a chance to grow, to me it's the best proposal on the table," he said.

With all the bickering and controversy over the fate of the center and the proposed sale, the Rev. Barbara Gunn, pastor of the Mount Carmel Baptist Church in North Versailles, said it's probably time to call on a higher power for guidance.

"I believe it's time to ask God to be involved," she said. "Maybe that's the problem -- we haven't put the head of everything in this."

Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262. First Published April 29, 2014 12:14 PM

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