August Wilson Center awaits suitors as deadline nears

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With less than a week to go before the deadline, there's no mad dash to buy the debt-ridden August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

In fact, Judith Fitzgerald, the court-appointed conservator charged with selling the Downtown center, has yet to receive one formal offer for the $40 million building despite its prime location on Liberty Avenue about a block from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

"There are several organizations that have expressed interest, but we don't have anything in writing so I don't know how to judge that," she said.

Ms. Fitzgerald, a former bankruptcy judge, has set a March 31 deadline for buyers to submit preliminary offers or term sheet proposals for the building, which is being sold to pay off a $7 million mortgage and other outstanding debt.

However, she said she may end up extending the deadline in an effort to accommodate one interested party that may not have all of the information it needs to submit a proposal by March 31.

Orphans' Court Judge Lawrence O'Toole of Allegheny County gave the go-ahead for the sale in January, saying he found "no other reasonable or cognizable option" for the troubled facility.

Since then, Ms. Fitzgerald has been taking inventory of the center's assets, a list that runs two pages excluding artwork, and talking to various foundation, community and political leaders in a bid to find a buyer who would preserve its mission. They have included county Executive Rich Fitzgerald (no relation to the conservator), Buhl Foundation president Frederick Thieman, and Pittsburgh Cultural Trust president and CEO J. Kevin McMahon.

Ms. Fitzgerald would not identify the groups or organizations that have expressed an interest in the property, citing confidentiality agreements. She noted that a group of foundations also has indicated an interest in purchasing the center but has not made a formal offer.

The former judge set the March 31 deadline for offers so that she would have time to work through any issues and close on a sale by June 30, at which point Dollar Bank is no longer required to fund the center's maintenance and utility expenses to keep it operating. The bank moved to foreclose on the property last year after the center defaulted on its mortgage.

If Ms. Fitzgerald doesn't get any offers by Monday, she has another strategy ready to go: patience.

"If we don't have something by March 31, we'll keep waiting and see what happens," she said.

While the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has been viewed by some as a possible savior to the center, it does not plan to submit an offer for the building, Mr. McMahon said.

"We don't have resources of that magnitude ourselves. Like a lot of people, we've been very supportive and very interested in working with others to try to figure out a way to continue the vision and mission of the center. We're like everyone else, sort of standing by hoping for a positive outcome," he said.

"We've been talking with a lot of different parties. There are a lot of people working in the background trying to figure out appropriate strategies and we've been involved in a number of conversations."

Mr. Theiman could not be reached for comment. Janet Sarbaugh, senior director of the arts and culture program for The Heinz Endowments, declined comment.

Attorney E.J. Strassburger, who made an unsuccessful pitch in January to serve as conservator on a voluntary basis in an attempt to save the center, said he is putting together a group with the same goal in mind. But he added it would not be in the position to bid on the building by the March 31 deadline. The group's goal is to preserve the center's mission as an African-American cultural center, he said.

Mr. Strassburger said his group, still in the formative stages, includes some of the center's founding members as well as others with an interest in saving the venue, named after the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who grew up in the Hill District.

The group may not be ready to advance a proposal until the fall, he said, explaining it will take time to persuade potential funders that the group has a plan that can succeed.

If Ms. Fitzgerald is able to secure a solid bid that meets with the judge's approval by the end of the month, "We're in trouble," Mr. Strassburger said.

And if not? "We may be the tortoise that gets to the finish line," he said.

Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262.

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