Grant Oliphant / Turning the August Wilson Center into a hotel would be a grievous loss for Pittsburgh


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Every time I hear someone describe the proposal to hand the August Wilson Center over to private hotel developers as a “win-win,” I think of that famous line from the Vietnam War: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Just to be clear, there is nothing “win-win” about this proposal, to the extent we know anything about it beyond vague outlines and promises. Here is what I believe we can safely say:

• The deal would throw away more than $35 million in government, foundation, corporate and private investment in what was always promised to be a charitable asset for the good of the whole community, and it would hand an architectural treasure off to a private developer for a fraction of what it cost to build.

• It would gut the core of the building to transform it into a lobby and conference rooms and shove the “cultural” spaces into pieces of the facility and parts of the calendar. And who decides what constitutes the building’s “cultural” space? The developers and, as they have shared with us, their definition doesn’t even include the rehearsal space that the center’s dancers used to practice their art.

• It would leave a for-profit company in charge of deciding what is artistically acceptable in its space. When was the last time you went to a hotel to see challenging or edgy art? There is a reason art like that happens in galleries and theaters and museums, and why hotels are famous for sales of “sofa art.”

• It would shatter the original intent of the center, which was for the whole building — not just pieces and parts — to be a grand celebration of this community’s unique and remarkable African-American culture and heritage, a place not just for performances and exhibits but also for meetings and lectures, gatherings and artistry, practice and reflection.

• It would, according to the plans described to us but never shared, deface the exterior of the building with massive pillars that would erase the center’s presence and transform its richly symbolic “sail” into a footnote.

• It would eviscerate Urban Redevelopment Authority covenants governing the use and preservation of the building that are the core of why government and foundations can reliably invest in challenging projects such as this. If these covenants can be so easily voided whenever they become inconvenient, then future funding for redevelopment projects will be impossible to secure.

• And, perhaps worst of all, it would make the pretense of preserving the “center” by leaving in place a nonprofit organization whose past stewardship of its charitable mission, according to our legal counsel, all but guarantees that foundations would not be able to fund it.

This proposal is a hollow promise. And why? Why would we accept all these terrible tradeoffs?

• Because it is the high bid?

Fair enough. But what’s the first thing you would say to someone who is bidding to buy your house? The answer is almost certainly some version of “show me the money.”

So far, months into the torturous process with the Wilson Center, that hasn’t happened, and the developers have requested two more months to produce evidence that they have the means to execute their proposal. They have that right, but sensible people also have the right to be skeptical. Call me crazy, but I come from the “I’ll believe it when I see it” school.

• Because the center loses money?

This argument is especially infuriating. Let’s be clear about this: Every cultural center and arts facility in the country is a “money pit.” That’s why they are called “nonprofits.” They survive on donations. If it were Heinz Hall or the Benedum Center or the Carnegie Museums in this fix, would we be so quick to write them off because they “lose money.” Seriously?

• Because it would pay off all the center’s debt?

Lenders routinely end up taking “haircuts” to restructure and settle debt when cultural facilities and other nonprofits run into the kind of wall the center has. Lenders in Nashville recently wrote off $39 million in debt to help save that city’s symphony. No one is asking the center’s lenders for anything close to that kind of sacrifice.

• Because we could put the center back on the tax rolls?

By this reasoning we should hand all of our cultural facilities over to private developers. That would certainly generate more tax revenue, at least until people figured out what had happened to the cultural and creative life in their community. Anybody who understands how key Pittsburgh’s Cultural District has been to the resurgence of our Downtown — and the growth of its tax base — knows what a fool’s bargain this would be.

• Because the August Wilson Center failed?

The self-righteous moralism in this question, usually asked as though the center is getting what it deserved, is staggering.

Yes, the center suffered from poor management and stewardship along the way. But it was also a new facility and a new concept that was saddled from the beginning with staggering debt that no cultural center of its size in the country could sustain, and it was launched in the worst fundraising environment in a generation. Let’s forgo the judgment and instead focus on what this center could yet become.

• Because a center focused on African-American culture can’t succeed?

It’s true that facilities like these have struggled all around the country. But that probably has more to do with them being new and suffering from a combination of growing pains and the lack of an already existing donor pool than with cultural specificity. Does Pittsburgh have a rich tradition and present-day reality of African-American culture that is worth celebrating? Can that reality be the cornerstone of activity in a building devoted to its honor? You bet it can.

That was the vision for the original August Wilson Center, and that remains the vision of those who want to preserve this building as a resource for the whole community, not just hotel goers and tax collectors. Our “back-up bid” is backed up by real money and deep community values.

The plan is simple: Buy the building and put it under the control of an African-American-led nonprofit board whose mission would be to protect and operate the community asset that is the facility itself. At the price we have offered, it would leave enough resources to secure professional management of the facility’s operations, most likely through the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust at first.

Consistent with best practices in the management of such facilities, the plan would shift the task of providing robust African-American cultural programming to a new, separate nonprofit that would be the building’s anchor tenant and programmer and that would be freed from the distractions of owning and operating a building. A community process, funded by The Pittsburgh Foundation, is already underway to develop the concept for this new organization.

This plan would preserve the August Wilson Center — both the building and the mission — and all the community potential, history and identity wrapped up inside it. A smaller, architecturally sensitive hotel could still be developed in the air space above, an offer that has been made but rebuffed.

But before we worry about booking ourselves into a new hotel, maybe we should make good on the reservation that this community has invested tens of millions of dollars, countless hours and a good part of its reputation and soul into booking in the first place: a dynamic center of community life that gives voice, for all of us, to a crucial part of who we are as a people and as a place.

The village we need to save is not so much the August Wilson Center as Pittsburgh itself — Pittsburgh as a city that stands by its commitment to art, creativity and the rich, full range of our cultural heritage. Destroying the August Wilson Center would not save anything. It would just destroy, and we all would be the poorer.

Grant Oliphant is president of The Heinz Endowments.


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