Supporters of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture breathed a sigh of relief last week when the Pittsburgh Foundation announced it had joined with other local foundations in a bid to purchase the ailing institution. Most importantly for advocates, the foundations say they plan to maintain the center's original mission: preserving and celebrating local black culture.
"When I heard the foundations were coming together to make a bid, I was thrilled," says Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project. "We specifically pushed for that."
"The foundation consortium's primary objective is to explore opportunities to save the August Wilson Center in the hope that it may re-open and remain operating for the long term, fulfilling its essential role as the community's hub for African-American arts and culture," said John Ellis, Pittsburgh Foundation spokesperson, in a statement.
While the announcement is good news for those who want to see the August Wilson Center continue its focus on African-American culture, nothing is certain. The foundation wasn't the only bidder for the center, and so far, neither the number nor identities of the other bidders has been released by Judith Fitzgerald, the court-appointed conservator charged with resolving the center's debt. Also not known is what other bidders might do with the center.
"I appreciate the interest of the press and public in the status of affairs at the August Wilson Center," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "I am not ready to issue a formal announcement as my team and I are still actively working on a variety of possible solutions. When we have something final to report, I will let you know. I anticipate making an announcement in the near future."
Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O'Toole will have to approve any final settlement.
Right now, even Dollar Bank, which holds the mortgage on the property and initiated foreclosure proceedings last September, is in the dark about who else has bid on the center.
"We communicate with the receiver and receive some information [but] I have not seen [the bids]," says Dollar Bank attorney Eric Schaffer. "I've heard about them, but I don't think I know any more than [what] the receiver has announced."
Some observers are expressing concern about the lack of transparency,
The center is burdened with nearly $10 million in debt, $7 million of which belongs to Dollar Bank. Fitzgerald declined an earlier foundation-led bid, offering $4 million for the center, because it didn't cover the amount owed. Some worry that this bid, too, could be turned down if it doesn't pay off the center's obligations — and that other, competing bids might not aim to keep the center's mission intact.
"I'm hoping the conservator and Dollar Bank will do everything they can to make that bid work," Stevens says. "Obviously Dollar Bank contributed greatly and needs to get their money back, but there is a greater calling here. The August Wilson Center was designed as the hub of African-American culture in our city and it is vital for it to remain so."
Fitzgerald has repeatedly stated her preference to sell the center to an entity that would keep its mission intact. However, if a bid does not meet the debt owed to Dollar Bank, as previously reported by City Paper, the bank can counter-bid the $7 million owed to them, says Schaffer, and potentially claim the building.
To place a bid, interested parties were required to sign a confidentiality agreement, in order to keep details of the center's finances under wraps. But these kinds of confidentiality agreements are customary in the bidding process.
"There are restrictive covenants involved," says Kimberly Ellis, niece of the center's namesake (and no relation to the Pittsburgh Foundation spokesman). "I think the process should be more transparent, but if someone wanted to express interest, they had to sign a confidentiality agreement."
Ellis has also cited the fees paid to Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald and her staff charge $350 an hour and claim to work 12-to-16-hour days; the charges have reached $150,000 as of February, according to court documents. "The lack of transparency, her fees, are troubling," says Ellis, who has raised questions about how Fitzgerald is benefitting financially from the sale. "The story's not over yet."
Ellis wasn't the only one expressing concerns. Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who represents the public's interest in the center's sale, objected to a $50,000 bill submitted by Fitzgerald in February.
In a court document filed Feb. 18, Kane wrote, "The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, by its Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, in her capacity as parens patriae, respectfully requests that this Honorable Court not grant at this time, the Conservator for the August Wilson Center for African American Culture First Allowance and Payment of Conservators Fees and Expenses ...."
According to that document filed by Kane, portions of Fitzgerald's bill were redacted. In order to resolve the matter, Fitzgerald agreed to let the court review the original bill, but did not allow the original to be entered into court documents, where it would be available for public view.
"The redactions that are in the Receiver's detailed fee entries were made for the sole purpose of protecting the attorney-client privilege, or other confidential information that is subject to confidential and non-disclosure agreements, such as the name of parties interested in purchasing the August Wilson Center facility," Fitzgerald said in her response to the objection.
In the meantime, many are relieved to know there is at least one option on the table to keep the center's mission.
"That sounds great to me," says Paradise Gray, who hosted a Feb. 8 town-hall meeting and March 7 rally to save the center, along with his wife, Renee Gray, another August Wilson relative. "From what I've heard about it, [their bid] sounds satisfactory to me. That's what I want — that the center continues to serve as an African-American cultural center."
Gray hopes the public and local politicians can put some pressure on the conservator and Dollar Bank to ensure they accept the foundations' bid.
"They are supposed to be working for the good of the center, and if that's what they're working for, they should accept the bid that wants to keep its mission intact," Gray says. "I would love to know more about who the other bidders were. I'd also like it if more local politicians would get behind maintaining the August Wilson Center for the reason it was created."
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has said he and Mayor Bill Peduto are working on ways to save the center, but neither has come forward with a plan to date.