Consortium of foundations bids to buy August Wilson Center

Group’s offer is believed to be one of several proposals to purchase building


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The August Wilson Center for African American Culture may have found a savior.

A consortium of local foundations has stepped forward with a bid to buy the beleaguered Downtown property with the goal of preserving its mission as a center of African-American arts programming.

Led by the Pittsburgh Foundation, the local group submitted a joint bid last week to conservator Judith Fitzgerald, the former bankruptcy judge charged with selling the building to pay off a $7 million delinquent mortgage and other debts.

"The Pittsburgh Foundation is among a small group of local foundations that is developing a joint initiative in efforts to preserve the August Wilson Center and to safeguard its purpose as the pre-eminent community resource for African-American arts programming," John Ellis, a Pittsburgh Foundation spokesman, said in a statement.

In addition to the purchase bid, the foundations are separately "examining ways to maintain funding support for local African-American arts programming," according to the statement.

"The foundation consortium's primary objective is to explore opportunities to save the August Wilson Center in hope that it may reopen and remain operating for the long term fulfilling its essential role as a community hub for African-American arts and culture."

Mr. Ellis declined to reveal the terms of the bid or the other local foundations involved in the effort. Carmen Lee, spokeswoman for the Heinz Endowments, which has provided funding for the center in the past, had no comment.

Ms. Fitzgerald could not be reached for comment. She had set a March 31 deadline for prospective buyers to submit preliminary offers or proposals for the building, named after the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who grew up in the Hill District.

Since then, she has been mum about the results of the effort to find a purchaser except for an emailed statement to reporters last week in which she said that she was "continuing discussions with prospective buyers." She did not elaborate.

The foundations' bid is believed to be one of several offers that Ms. Fitzgerald received. No details were available on the others.

That the foundations ended up submitting a bid is not surprising. In an interview before the deadline, Ms. Fitzgerald said that a group of local foundations had indicated an interest in purchasing the center, but had not made a formal offer.

Local foundations have long been involved in the center's funding, though they cut it off as the venue's financial woes mounted. In her own effort to save the center, Ms. Fitzgerald spent a lot of time visiting foundations in an effort to secure funding, but was not successful.

The former jurist set the March 31 deadline for offers so that she would have time to work through any issues and close on the sale by June 30, at which point mortgage holder Dollar Bank is no longer required under court order 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.

Local attorney E.J. Strassburger, who made an unsuccessful pitch in January to serve as conservator on a voluntary basis in an effort to save the center, was putting together a group with the same purpose in mind.

But he did not think the group, which includes some of the center's founding members, would be in a position to advance a proposal until the fall.


Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.

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