August Wilson Center’s backers remain hopeful

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Supporters of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture vowed Saturday to keep up their fight to save the facility -- and re-imagine how it would operate -- even as a judge weighs an offer to sell the building to pay off debts.

"I'm optimistic," said South Side resident Mujidat Saaka, one of a dozen people who attended a Hill District meeting to get a status report on the center's fate.

The meeting was held by Sala Udin, a founder of the center and former city councilman who's now one of those leading the effort to preserve the Downtown facility named for the late playwright born in the Hill District.

Mr. Udin urged the group to write letters encouraging Dollar Bank, owed about $7 million on the building's mortgage, to "help solve the problem rather than wait on the sidelines" for payment.

He urged supporters to attend a series of meetings -- one will be held at 6 p.m. Monday at Alloy Studios in East Liberty -- on the center's rescue and future. He said an "August Wilson Center Recovery Committee," led by Janera Solomon, executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, had asked Mikki Shepard, executive producer at New York's Apollo Theater, to consult.

Ms. Solomon said the purpose of the committee is primarily to establish a recovery plan and renewed vision for the center. The committee has already talked to a range of stakeholders and national advisors, she said, about alternative routes for the Center

"I think it's important to have a conversation and look back at its mission, and we as a community figure out its purpose and role, and if it still holds," Ms. Solomon said. "I still believe in the vision of the center -- the vision for a vibrant African-American cultural center that is still important to the city of Pittsburgh. I'm imagining a future where the center is, again, a community asset."

Mr. Udin, who said plans are underway to form a new corporation to operate the center, stressed the importance of learning from other facilities with financial problems and from the center's own mistakes. Ms. Solomon agreed, and said new leadership and renewed community support is critical for the center's revitalization.

Ms. Saaka said she's heartened by the number of people involved in trying to save the center, while Lemuel Nixon, a Wilkinsburg resident and center founder, said supporters "still have a long way to go."

The court-appointed conservator, Judith Fitzgerald, has proposed selling the center, its air rights and liquor license for $9.5 million to a New York-based group operating as 980 Liberty Partners. She's trying to pay off about $10 million in debts, including about $7 million to Dollar Bank.

The would-be owners want to put a hotel on the structure's roof. They've offered to incorporate the center into their plans for the building, but Mr. Udin said supporters don't want to be a "tenant."

"The authority would be with the landowner," depriving the center of its independence, he said.

Mr. Udin and others preferred a $4 million bid from local foundations aimed at preserving the center. The foundations -- the Pittsburgh Foundation, Heinz Endowments and he Richard King Mellon Foundation -- withdrew the bid April 21, saying Ms. Fitzgerald preferred the New Yorkers' offer. Mr. Udin said supporters remain in contact with foundation leaders in the hope of keeping them on board.

"It's too important a public asset and too important a public entity for community members to not ask more questions about this company," Ms. Solomon said of the New York-based interested buyers.

John Ellis, spokesman for the Pittsburgh Foundation, did not attend the meeting but said afterward that the philanthropies are "watching with interest" the community activism and remain concerned about preserving the center's mission. Otherwise, he said, "there are no developments."

Allegheny County Judge Lawrence O'Toole, who is overseeing the case, has given the parties until Monday to respond to Ms. Fitzgerald's proposal to sell the center to the New York group.

Mr. Udin said there are reasons to be hopeful, namely the support of political leaders and deed covenants restricting the property for use as an African-American cultural center. Mayor Bill Peduto and county Executive Rich Fitzgerald (no relation to the conservator) have called for Ms. Fitzgerald's ouster because, they say, preserving the center isn't her highest priority.

A mayor's opposition can complicate a development, Mr. Udin said. But he added that it would be unwise to discount the strength of the New Yorkers' offer.

Clarece Polke contributed. Joe Smydo: or 412-263-1548. First Published May 3, 2014 12:54 PM

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