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Too Much Drama? 

Wilson Center furor may be missing the point

Here's one thing that makes August Wilson's legendary "Pittsburgh Cycle" a great work of art: In the 10 plays comprising it, Wilson never pretends there are easy answers. It'd be nice if we could say the same of efforts to rescue the Downtown cultural center that bears his name.

Right now, though, there's a lot of melodrama over whether to make a stock villain of Judith Fitzgerald, the court-appointed receiver charged with clearing the August Wilson Center's $10 million debt.

The subplot emerged when the Pittsburgh Foundation and two other charitable enterprises abandoned their $4 million bid to acquire the center. In a statement, the foundations faulted Fitzgerald for seeking to "transfer [the] iconic facility to a commercial enterprise" — an investment group offering $9.5 million in exchange for being allowed to build a hotel above the center.

The group's spokesman, Matthew Shollar, says the bid is a chance to shore up the center's finances, turning a "national story of failure ... into a story of success." But days after the foundations withdrew, Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald asked Judge Lawrence O'Toole to remove the receiver before she could pursue that bid.

Judith Fitzgerald, they alleged, was downplaying the "public interest of preserving the [center's] mission" and failing to engage in "meaningful interaction with the local African-American community." Then, at an April 28 hearing before O'Toole, attorneys for the foundations and the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority charged that Fitzgerald had ignored possible alternatives to a sale. Fitzgerald, alleged foundation attorney Carolyn Duronio, gave her clients the impression "they were not to interfere" in her plans.

It's hard to know if there's a villain here: Much of the dialogue has taken place off-stage, in closed-door talks. Fitzgerald hotly insisted that when she sought financial support from foundations, she was "flatly denied." Some bankruptcy experts, meanwhile, say she's being miscast. Fitzgerald's job is "to maximize the value of the property for the creditors. That's it," says Mark D. Yochum, a Duquesne University professor who teaches bankruptcy law.

And that's the rub. As proposed, the foundations' plan involves not just offering their own money, but requiring creditors to become philanthropists, too. Dollar Bank, for one, would lose $3 million of a $7 million mortgage; other creditors would likely get nothing. For example, the Wilson Center owes stagehands some $30,000 in back wages, dues and benefits, according to Shawn Foyle, the secretary-treasurer of the union representing them.

Foyle worries about both proposals. While the hotel operators have pledged to provide a home for the center, they're an unknown quantity; Foyle worries they might curtail use of the center's theater space. By contrast, while the foundations have a long history of supporting the arts — including cultural facilities where Foyle's members work — their bid "doesn't offer anything to creditors. And that includes us."

In the end, Foyle says, "One offer doesn't seem right, and the other doesn't add up."

Would it dishonor Wilson's legacy if his center ends up in a hotel's shadow? Maybe. But stiffing center workers and vendors (some of which are black-owned) risks tarnishing that legacy too.

Maybe it's too glib — too easy — to say those who oppose the hotel plan should just raise their bid. Foundations and taxpayers have already donated some $30 million to the center. But the tragic irony here is that the difference between the offers — $6 million — is chump change for a public-private bailout. In 1997, government agencies spent twice that on Civic Arena improvements for the Pittsburgh Penguins. And the whole building was later scrapped anyway.

Foyle, for one, says his union might contribute to a solution, if invited to the table. "Plenty of us might put in a couple cents, if we know what you're talking about." Maybe the rest of us would too.

So far, though, civic leaders have been a day late as well as $6 million short. O'Toole noted that April 28 was the first time either the URA or the foundations had appeared before him. "I've heard a lot of orations," O'Toole said, but "nothing has happened."

That's the definition of a poorly written play. And if civic leaders want to rewrite the ending, they may need a better script.

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