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Identity & Community

Black Community Leaders Ask for Stronger Voice In The Future of August Wilson Center

On Tuesday morning, the receiver of the bankrupt August Wilson Center for African American Culture convened a meeting with several leaders in Pittsburgh’s black community.

Judith Fitzgerald, the receiver, got the names of those invited from Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald (no relation). The meeting was an effort to give the community a status update on the center, but several in attendance said communication needs to be better going forward.

“This meeting was convened with leaders from the African American community, which meant that when the media would report who was at the meeting, it sanctions the agenda of the meeting,” said William Curtis, pastor of Mt. Ararat Baptist Church. “So we want to make sure that if that is, in fact, the case that we have a chance to converse and that we’re not just here to hear information knowing that our names will be attached to whatever information is being disseminated.”

New York firm 980 Liberty Partners has surfaced as a proposed buyer for the August Wilson Center. The firm has proposed building a 200-room hotel above the facility; the $9.5 million offer would cover the center’s delinquent mortgage to Dollar Bank.

“We really want to have a reset button here as far as the creditors are concerned,” said Matthew Shollar, a Squirrel Hill hospitality developer and partner with 980 Liberty Partners, “and that’s both the secured and unsecured creditors, many of whom are people who are owed back salary or trades people, many of whom are in the African American community, who are owed trade debt, so we see that resetting that is important.”

Shollar said the proposal would keep cultural and civic benefits of the August Wilson Center such as the theater and “significant gallery space” for community use, and at no cost to the August Wilson Center. He said the hope is to come to a long-term perpetual agreement, though there are questions about how to make the most of the space.

“How do we have more frequent show changes? How do we put on performances that benefit the cultural community at large? How does the Cultural Trust get involved?” asked Shollar. “These are all things we want to do very much, and we hope as soon as the order is signed we’ll be able to go and sit down and really engage with the entire community about that.”

A judge must still approve the sale, if it’s to go forward. And Shollar said if a hotel cannot technically be built atop the facility, the deal is a no-go.

A bid for the center from the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and the R. K. Mellon Foundation was dropped last week. The foundations announced their decision in a statement saying the receiver appeared to favor the 980 Liberty Partners Bid. Whatever the future of the center looks like, community leaders said they want to make sure the voice of the black community is heard along the way, and that they not be brought into the loop as an afterthought.

“We want to make sure that the African American community is involved in more than just the dissemination of information,” said Pastor Curtis, “that they’re involved in the planning of how the August Wilson’s future is shaped.”