- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 22, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - A former federal bankruptcy judge appointed to oversee the finances of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture is recommending it be sold or leased to other users to pay off debts she estimates at $9.5 million to $10 million.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O’Toole has scheduled a hearing Friday on the report and related motion by Judith Fitzgerald, the retired judge he appointed in November to oversee the center’s finances. O’Toole did that in hopes the center could be saved in the face of mounting debts, most notably Dollar Bank’s effort to foreclose on the center’s $7 million mortgage.

O’Toole has consolidated those efforts with a petition filed by Attorney General Kathleen Kane demanding an accounting of the center’s finances.

Fitzgerald filed a court motion on Tuesday, accompanied by the bleak financial report, asking O’Toole to change her role as conservator and to allow her to liquidate the center’s assets to satisfy its debts.

“The conservator regretfully must advise the court that there is simply no continued viability of AWC as it currently exists,” Fitzgerald wrote.

The center named for the black, Pittsburgh-born Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright opened in 2009 with the help of $17.4 million in tax dollars, but it has struggled with budget deficits.

Fitzgerald said she has met with Dollar Bank, various charities that have helped fund the center in the past and the Allegheny Regional Asset District - a quasi-governmental board that doles out proceeds from the county’s sales tax to regional assets like the center.

Fitzgerald said the charitable foundations have “their own alternative proposals that they want to pursue,” but she declined to detail those. She said Dollar Bank had already rejected another proposal by the charities, which she also declined to detail.

Fitzgerald noted the bank has paid the center’s utilities and insurance since filing for foreclosure in September.

“The court charged the conservator with conducting a thorough investigation and her report shows that she has done just that,” Dollar Bank attorney Eric Schaffer said. “The conservator’s conclusions appear to be well-founded.”

Many leaders in the city’s black community have lamented the findings and complained the center is being rushed into foreclosure. County Councilman Bill Robinson, a Democrat, has even suggested the center seek funding from black entertainers.

Kimberly Ellis, an arts management consultant who directs the Historic Hill Institute, which seeks to preserve the city’s historically black Hill District, said the community should step up pressure to save the center.

“There are absolutely national and international stakeholders in the August Wilson Center and they probably have never been contacted,” Ellis said. “They should be given the opportunity to step forward.”

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