Dollar Bank buys August Wilson Center for $1,912.50
November 3, 2014 11:04 PM
Monday's sheriff's sale appears to end a tumultuous five years of financial hardship for the cultural center since its grand opening on Liberty Avenue in Downtown.
Court-appointed conservator Judith Fitzgerald watches the sheriff's sales in the Gold Room of the Allegheny County Courthouse where the August Wilson Center was officially sold to Dollar Bank.
Attorneys meet during the sheriff's sale of the August Wilson Center.
By Daniel Moore / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The August Wilson Center for African American Culture on Monday remained in the hands of the bank that bought it at sheriff’s sale earlier in the day.
Dollar Bank, holder of the center’s $7.9 million delinquent mortgage, purchased the property on Liberty Avenue, Downtown, for $1,912.50 — the taxes and costs associated with the sale — at the public auction. There were no other bidders.
Although the deal seemed to put an end to a tumultuous five years of financial hardship for the center since its grand opening, the center’s ultimate fate remained unclear. In particular, the sale continued the uncertainty for those who have advocated to maintain the property as a hub of African-American culture and arts.
For months, local leaders have expressed support for a deal in which the center would end up in the hands of three Pittsburgh foundations: the Heinz Endowments, the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Richard King Mellon Foundation. The foundations have stated their intent to continue operations of the center as a hub of African-American arts and culture.
John Ellis, spokesman for the consortium of foundations, said he could not speak on the record about the details of any impending deal with Dollar Bank.
“We continue to work toward a resolution that enables the August Wilson Center to be safeguarded as the community asset that it is,” Mr. Ellis said.
Dollar Bank attorney Eric Schaffer also declined to comment.
The sale to the foundations almost happened last week. Court-appointed conservator Judith Fitzgerald attempted to sell the property to the consortium for $8.49 million. Allegheny County Common Pleas Orphans’ Court Judge Lawrence O’Toole approved that sale, free of all debt and liens.
But two days later, International Investigative Services, a Bethel Park firm that provided security at the center, filed an appeal with the state Superior Court to claim more than $200,000 owed by the center. The three foundations would not close on the deal until the appeal was settled, setting up Monday’s court date.
Proponents of the deal remained optimistic, though.
Kevin Acklin, chief of staff to Mayor Bill Peduto, said in a statement that the mayor “remains committed to the foundation-led plan to acquire the August Wilson Center and continue its nonprofit mission, and we look forward to negotiating directly with Dollar Bank toward a successful closing.”
Kimberly Ellis, niece of August Wilson, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who grew up in the Hill District, said the sheriff’s sale “could be the best thing that could have happened” for the center because it cleared all debts, and therefore all parties who were trying to get money, that were “obstructing” the sale.
“It is my understanding it still will be sold to the foundations,” Ms. Ellis said.
As the Orphans’ Court case concluded, the state attorney general’s office finally delivered its accounting of the center’s demise, blaming it primarily on higher-than-expected construction costs and operating losses.
In a summary of investigative findings submitted to the court Friday, the office said that although the center “was unsuccessful in sustaining its operations, the evidence is insufficient to support any further action against the center’s former officers or directors.”
The report said construction costs ended up $11.4 million above budget, forcing the center to borrow money from Dollar when donations fell short of what was needed.
At the same time, between 2003 and 2012, operating losses totaled $11.3 million.
The AG’s office also criticized the center’s use of consultants. As one example, it reported that over 10 years, the organization paid employees nearly $1.8 million for fundraising and development while paying consultants nearly $1.1 million for the same services.
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