Ideas abound at public meeting held to save August Wilson Center

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Maybe there are performers, some known nationally who have helped stage works by August Wilson over the years, who would be moved to donate money to help save a cultural center bearing the Pittsburgh-born playwright's name.

Or perhaps some local pro sports figures with millions of dollars in personal wealth could be compelled to get behind a community cause.

For nearly three hours Friday, a Pittsburgh Public Schools committee considered those and other ways the district could acquire and preserve the now-dormant August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

School board member Mark Brentley Sr., who heads the ad hoc committee, said during the panel's inaugural session that he hopes the school system can advance within 45 days a proposal to purchase the center, which opened on Liberty Avenue, Downtown, in 2009 but within a few years became insolvent.

Whether the school system has the means to act alone or would need to form a partnership with other city and cultural entities remains to be seen.

Also unclear is what shape the reopened Downtown center might take, be it a revenue-generating expansion of Pittsburgh CAPA, a venue for broader regional instruction in performance art, or an arts collective.

But there was no disagreement among a handful of speakers who attended that the $40 million building needs to survive as a community asset that celebrates Wilson, an African-American playwright whose works helped put Pittsburgh on the literary map. He died in 2005.

Former school board member Randall Taylor emphasized what's at stake not only for African-Americans in the city but for the community as a whole.

"As long as people are reading, they will be reading about Pittsburgh, and that's what August Wilson did for us," he said. "We owe him."

He said the city cannot let a building that bears Wilson's name be associated with failure.

Mr. Brentley said with the building now for sale the clock is ticking.

"Time is of the essence," he said. "We have to move quickly."

Court-appointed conservator Judith Fitzgerald, who participated via phone conference, said she will need proposals from prospective buyers in hand at least by March 31 to meet a goal to have the building's acquisition settled by June 30.

She said the building carries about $9.5 million to $10 million in total debt -- the biggest share of which is a $7 million-plus mortgage with Dollar Bank as well as a half-million-dollar lien with the city Urban Redevelopment Authority.

She assured the committee the goal is not to sell off the center's assets piecemeal but rather to satisfy the debt, perhaps by securing a buyer.

Bidders are expected to submit confidentiality agreements, a potential obstacle for a public entity such as Pittsburgh Public Schools, which is required by law to conduct its business in public, attendees acknowledged.

Possibilities raised during Friday's meeting included approaching the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, foundations and perhaps the city's colleges and universities, including those with prominent performance programs.

Tim Stevens, chairman and chief executive officer of the Black Political Empowerment Program, told the meeting inside Pittsburgh Public Schools' headquarters in Oakland that he'd prefer the facility re-emerge as is. But he also said he would be satisfied if it at least continued as a cultural facility.

"Even the possibility of that building being bought by somebody and torn down would be heartbreaking," he said.

"It's an uphill battle. Let's be honest," Mr. Stevens acknowledged. But he also said what seems like a daunting financial burden might be within reach for well-heeled professional athletes. Mr. Taylor suggested those connected to the playwright through performing his works might give, too.

Ross Mitchell, a musician who also spoke at Friday's meeting, suggested Pittsburgh Public Schools could strengthen its position in the matter by selling unused buildings already up for sale. Hill Jordan, another speaker, said a resurrected center might incorporate not just CAPA but other successful school programs.

Bill Schackner:, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG. First Published January 31, 2014 12:44 PM

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