Opinion: Saving the August Wilson Center

There’s no pretense involved, just a realistic new course


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I note the concerns of Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments, regarding our offer to purchase the August Wilson Center with respect, but his assertions misstate the facts (“Save the August Wilson Center,” Aug. 11 Perspectives). 

In my view, productive dialogue beats colorful invective and might provide a different view of our plans; with it, he certainly would not have been able to describe our proposal as he did. May I correct the record?

Our deal will not “throw away” anyone’s money, nor will it “hand off” anything to us. Rather, we will spend millions to address all the debts of a failed non-profit (a failure which we had nothing to do with), and at great and ongoing expense to ourselves we will revitalize the center in an enduring and sustainable manner, guaranteeing both significant cost reductions and new revenue streams; not for three or five years, as the foundations propose to do, but over the course of a 99-year lease.

Rather than “gut” or “shove” the August Wilson Center cultural facilities, our plan offers more accessibility without reducing program space and leaves it available to the public at no charge. The center would not be in the “hotel lobby” as insinuated, but in a large, separate and defined space. 

A partnership with the foundations would further expand the center’s area. 980 Liberty Partners would not decide what is artistically acceptable; there has never been any intention to influence, guide or censor the art installations or performances in the center.

Our plan, far from “shattering” the original intent, would fulfill it, by bringing to fruition the always-planned hotel addition. The center’s own documents and the extensive public record show that a hotel was deemed necessary to provide a revenue stream, without which the center’s very existence was at risk. 

Mr. Oliphant must be aware of the incorporation of the Museum of the African Diaspora into San Francisco’s St. Regis Hotel, just one example of successful co-location.

As to suggestions that 980 plans to “deface” the building and “erase” the center’s presence and signature elements, let me clarify: There are no exterior pillars of any kind and, rather than relegating the symbolic sail to a “footnote,” we have allocated significant funds to enhance the sail, build a new center marquee entrance and install the exterior digital signage that was part of the architect’s original design but was omitted due to cost overruns.

Our plans call for an elegant, restrained tower that complements the existing structure, using under 50 percent of the available zoning allowance.

Rather than “eviscerate” the Urban Redevelopment Authority covenants, our dual-purpose approach conforms to the alleged use restrictions. We merely seek URA consent to the improvements, no differently than if this were the air-rights proposal made to us by both the URA and the foundations.

As to our “pretense” regarding preservation of the center, 980 would not create the non-profit, but would advise that any continuing or successor organization be one that allows for foundation and corporate support. We would expect that the giving community that has supported the center in the past would continue to do so and would see the fruits of their grants take flower.

Would anyone accept what Mr. Oliphant refers to as “terrible tradeoffs?” They wouldn’t. Thinking people recognize the following truths:

All of the contentious discussion could be resolved with even a modicum of productive discussion. This is a fundable transaction, one that will proceed in phases to a closing.

We are not making our purchase because the center “loses money.” 

Rather, the opportunity exists because the center failed. It defaulted on its mortgage long ago, and its lender, after an extended forbearance period and with great reluctance, is forced to foreclose. 

It is certainly true, however, that prior to the center falling into receivership, a solution could have been found to bring the mortgage current and restructure the center. Perhaps, in hindsight, that is what should be “especially infuriating.”

Yes, 980 will pay everyone. Not because it is the best business decision – we could have offered far less and still been the high bidder – but because it is the right thing to do. Forcing banks and unsecured creditors to suffer substantial losses is simply not a moral position to take.

Yes, the building can be placed back on the tax rolls, creating millions in new tax revenues; these in turn can fund more local and regional priorities (including the arts through the Allegheny Regional Asset District). 

Our project will create over 130 new, well-paying jobs and much-needed hotel rooms, enhancing our city’s competitiveness in the meeting and convention markets, driving more dollars to the city and the region while maintaining the August Wilson Center and strengthening its finances.

Expert third-party opinion affirms that the addition of a world-class hotel and a ground-floor restaurant will enhance, not detract from, the August Wilson Center and the Cultural District. “Fools bargain?” I think not.

I don’t consider it “self-righteous moralism” to suggest a new course when the previous one was unsustainable. Mr. Oliphant suggests, “Let’s forgo the judgment and instead focus on what his center could yet become.” 

I wholeheartedly agree. We have never suggested that a “center based on African-American culture can’t succeed.” Instead, we are betting that it can succeed, and thrive.

The Pittsburgh Foundation offer letter – one augmented by nearly $3 million in additional public dollars – leaves no doubt that the African-American community will not control the destiny of the August Wilson Center in their plan. The foundation will own the building, will appoint and fire the board, and their three-to-five year funding provides no assurance to the African-American leaders with whom I am working that there is a long-term foundation plan that includes community control.

Mr. Oliphant warned about saving the Pittsburgh village by not “destroying” the August Wilson Center. 

I wish to underscore a different point about our great and unique city. 

We build things. We are a shining example for the country and the world — of how to innovate, to grow and to break free from the constraints of conventional thinking. The foundation community, which does so much good, can elect to continue this Pittsburgh tradition, and together we can create a new paradigm that showcases the exponential value of public/​private collaboration. All it takes is a new conversation. Let’s talk.

Matthew Shollar is a partner of 980 Liberty Partners.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of the article incorrectly noted duration of the proposed lease. The article has been corrected to reflect that change.


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