New direction urged for August Wilson Center

Supporters of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture tried a new tactic Friday afternoon, when at a court hearing over the financially beleaguered organization they suggested a new conservator whose approach would be "worlds apart" from what has been done thus far.

Prominent Pittsburgh attorney E.J. Strassburger, who has volunteered to take on the position, said he feels that former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Judith Fitzgerald used the wrong methods to garner financial support.

"Something has to be done to increase the confidence of the funding community that something is being done to make them succeed," he said.

Mr. Strassburger characterized his approach as "180 degrees different from what has been tried so far."

In September, Dollar Bank started a foreclosure action on the center to recover $7 million owed on the mortgage. It alleged that the center had failed to continue payments for its required insurance and had not made a monthly $53,639 mortgage payment since February.

Ms. Fitzgerald was appointed to serve as a conservator in November, and earlier this week issued a report in which she said there was no possibility of saving the center "as it currently exists."

At Friday's hearing, she said that "not a single person or entity" has come forward with either a plan to save the center or money to help.

Her recommendation is that the center be placed into a liquidating receivership in an attempt to find a buyer for the property.

Judge Lawrence O'Toole, of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, said he will have a decision on the matter Monday.

Ms. Fitzgerald testified about the process she undertook between November and this week in trying to figure out the assets accumulated by the 65,000-square foot center.

"I was point-blank refused by all of the foundations," she said. "Everyone is very supportive. Everyone wants to see the August Wilson Center's mission survive."

"But," she continued, "it can't survive without funds, and it cannot bring in enough revenue to support its own operations, let alone the debt service.

"Everyone has the right words, but no one has put the money behind the words."

Ms. Fitzgerald suggested to Judge O'Toole that there be a bid process, wherein interested parties could submit their highest and best offers.

But Sandra Renwand, from the state attorney general's office, who is there to represent the public interest, suggested that the conservatorship for the center should continue.

"To just shift to liquidation, it's our position ... there are folks out there working diligently to try to help the mission of this center continue," Ms. Renwand said. "If all that is there is someone looking to liquidate and protect the bank's interest, we don't see an effort to pursue the mission.

"The only folks going to benefit from that order is the bank and the conservator."

Ms. Renwand suggested appointing an alternative conservator to further pursue the issues and suggested Mr. Strassburger.

He testified that one of the main flaws in Ms. Fitzgerald's approach was in not having a plan to take to the donors.

"She approached them without a plan," he said. "She said she wanted money to come up with a plan."

Mr. Strassburger said he believed he could use his influence and relationships in the community to build support for the center.

"To close this building because of $7 [million], or $9.5 [million] or $10 million, when you have equity of at least twice that, seems premature and ill-conceived."

His approach, Mr. Strassburger said, would first include hiring an executive director and then appointing an advisory board.

He also suggested that there is a commercial kitchen and space for a restaurant in the center, as well as an outdoor patio that could be used to generate revenue.

When asked by Ms. Fitzgerald's attorney, Beverly Weiss Manne, if he was sure of his success, Mr. Strassburger responded, "I can't guarantee it any more than I can guarantee a client will win."

At the end of the proceeding, several members of the community spoke to Judge O'Toole about the importance of the center.

All of them criticized the speed with which Ms. Fitzgerald did her work.

Paula Reed Ward:, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard.

First Published January 24, 2014 6:46 PM

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