Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald have asked for the removal of Judith Fitzgerald (no relation) as receiver of the bankrupt August Wilson Center for African American Culture.
The mayor and county executive sent a letter Tuesday to Lawrence O’Toole, the administrative judge of Orphans’ Court to remove Fitzgerald.
“It is our opinion that Receiver Fitzgerald does not maintain as her highest priority the public interest of preserving the mission of the Center as a public asset,” the letter said. “We are concerned that Receiver Fitzgerald has favored a commercial approach, has not presented any significant plan to preserve the mission of the Center, and her process has been devoid of any meaningful interaction with the local African American community. As a result, we have lost all confidence in Receiver Fitzgerald’s management of this case.”
The building is being sold to settle a mortgage default and other debts totaling about $10 million. County Executive Fitzgerald said the community investment is much higher.
“There’s about $30 million to $35 million of true debt in building the August Wilson Center," he said. "That’s from the corporate community, the taxpayers, the foundations, individuals. That really wasn’t taken into consideration in working out a process that could save the August Wilson Center.”
The request comes a day after the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and the R. K. Mellon Foundation dropped their bid to purchase the center which honors the late Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright who was born and grew up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
The foundations announced their decision in a statement saying the court-appointed Judith Fitzgerald appeared to favor a higher bid for the property and continuing with their offer would be "futile."
In an interim report last week Judith Fitzgerald, a former bankruptcy judge, said a developer's bid to acquire the building and erect a hotel on top of it could be "very attractive to the city, the county and the African-American community in Pittsburgh," because the proposed commercial addition could subsidize arts-related programing. Judith Fitzgerald said the developer is offering free gallery, office and storage space to the center, which would be able to use the theater for at least 120 days a year at a nominal fee.
The foundations however said the developer’s bid "would apparently give the center only limited access to its own theater and create an arrangement whose eligibility for future charitable funding is questionable at best."
But should the receiver consider preserving the mission of the center or solely which bid is best for the creditors.
“It could be difficult balancing those two,” said County Executive Fitzgerald. Quite frankly, there’s still a lot of public investment , there’s still a lot of public support for advancing the mission of the August Wilson Center. We think a plan could be put together with some partnerships of the community to do just that.”
Rich Fitzgerald said he’s not necessarily opposed to building a hotel on top of the center but, “it has to be consistent” with the center’s mission and the plan has to involve the people of the community, “and in this case that was not done.”
Receiver Fitzgerald said the foundations' offer would in effect form a new nonprofit entity "of an undefined mission, somehow related to African-American culture."
But the foundations said they had always intended for the center to be used for its original purpose "as a premier home for African American arts and culture programs."
Receiver Fitzgerald is to make a recommendation to Orphans' Court Judge Lawrence O'Toole, who will decide the matter.