Do right by the Wilson Center

The foundation proposal would have preserved this Pittsburgh treasure

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The court-appointed conservator for the August Wilson Center favors a resolution of the center’s financial problems that is not in the best interests of the center or the city of Pittsburgh and that would not preserve the center’s charitable mission.

At least $35 million of government, foundation and private-donor contributions were invested just to construct the building and millions more were spent to develop the center’s programing. Will a private developer be permitted to “steal” this charitable asset for a mere $9.5 million?

The conservator’s likely recommendation would advance the commercial, profit-driven mission of a private developer but not that of the August Wilson Center. The commercialists don’t understand that this is not just a financial transaction but part of the fabric that makes Pittsburgh an inclusive, diverse region.

What is the August Wilson Center’s mission? It is to promote the cultural arts — dance, music, visual arts and dramatic theater. It is to educate the public, especially young people, on the expanse of African-American culture and art. It is to serve as a magnet to retain and attract young black professionals to the Pittsburgh area. And it is to showcase African-American culture and art of which all Pittsburgh can be proud.

Making the August Wilson Center a tenant in a commercial hotel would not preserve this mission. Rather, it would relegate the August Wilson Center to dependent beggar status.

The proposal submitted by the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and the Richard King Mellon Foundation to buy the center for $4 million is the only plan that would afford the center the opportunity to regain its footing and perpetuate its mission.

Some will ask: “Didn’t you already have that chance and didn’t you squander it?”

The answer is not a simple one. A fantastic building has been built, but the mission has most assuredly not been fulfilled. Mistakes were made; lessons were learned. The founders had a thoughtful game plan, but effective implementation and oversight were lacking. Most significantly, the center opened with $12 million of crippling debt. Realistically, no new performing arts center/​museum could succeed under those circumstances.

The foundations’ plan would deliver a facility free of debt. It would engage the Cultural Trust as facility manager, a role which the trust already performs well in the Cultural District. The foundations and Cultural Trust are, always have been and in the future will need to be generous friends to the August Wilson Center. These relationships, synergies and efficiencies far outweigh the modest rent concessions the hotel developer proposes.

Unfortunately, on Monday the foundations withdrew their proposal. Let’s hope Judge Lawrence O’Toole calls them back to the table where well-meaning people can search thoughtfully for a solution that results in both equity and justice.

The hotel proposal is not the best choice. The bid submitted by the foundations would return a substantial amount to mortgage-holder Dollar Bank, would get the August Wilson Center moving in the right direction and would preserve a valuable charitable asset.

Sala Udin is a former Pittsburgh city councilman and a co-founder of the August Wilson Center.

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