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Wilson Center buoyed by $500K RAD grant

| Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017, 6:51 p.m.
This Jan. 13, 2017 photo shows the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in downtown Pittsburgh built to honor Pittsburgh born playwright August Wilson. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The August Wilson Center for African American Culture received another hefty taxpayer boost to buoy its comeback two years after narrowly avoiding foreclosure.

The volunteer board overseeing the Allegheny Regional Asset District on Thursday approved a $500,000 “connection” grant for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which is managing bookings and day-to-day operations at the boat-shaped center at Liberty Avenue and William Penn Place in Downtown Pittsburgh.

The grant is supposed to be used “to continue their collaborative effort to manage and to enhance programming at the August Wilson Center.”

It took at least $17 million in taxpayer money and $20 million from local foundations to build the center, named for the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright from the Hill District.

“Especially because so much public money has gone into the center already, we don't want to just abandon them,” said Dan Griffin, in his third term as chairman of RAD's board. “We want to give them that shot at August Wilson Center 2.0.”

RAD funding for cultural and recreational groups flows from half of an extra 1 percent sales tax in Allegheny County.

Last year, RAD awarded a $333,000 connection grant to the trust for the same purpose.

The moves are significant not only in terms of money but also as a vote of confidence from RAD in its role as a nonprofit oversight agency.

“The management of the theater has been going great,” Griffin said. “The theater has been occupied more than 100 nights in the last six months.”

Plagued by $12 million in debt because of construction overruns, the center struggled to pay bills from the day it opened in 2009. It was shuttered by 2013.

Before the closure, RAD had earmarked $3.5 million in operational funding for the center. The district denied additional funding just as an audit released in October 2013 revealed the center's dire financial condition.

The Pittsburgh Foundation bought the center from mortgage holder Dollar Bank in November 2014 after a contentious process that dragged on for nearly a year. The $8.85 million deal included $1.65 million from Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority and $1.5 million from RAD.

The August Wilson Center ended 2016 with roughly a $1,200 surplus, The Pittsburgh Foundation spokeswoman Kitty Julian said. The center's $1.8 million in expenses exceeded projections by $100,000, but higher-than-anticipated earned revenue made up the difference. The center raised $450,000 in earned revenue last year, up from a projected $235,000, Julian said.

The foundation is working to round out positions on the center's permanent board. A posting went up last month advertising an opening for an executive director.

“We hope at some point to reduce the need for public funds,” Griffin said. “That doesn't mean we would not continue to fund it. We just don't want to be the major funder. We'd like their major funding to be from the public and from their audience and them wearing out shoe leather and knocking on doors.”

The August Wilson Center's $500,000 award accounts for the bulk of money set aside for this year's RAD connection grants, which RAD doles out quarterly to support projects involving multiple nonprofits.

Two smaller grants also were approved Thursday: $15,000 to the Three Rivers Young Peoples Orchestra for a joint music project with the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra; and $6,300 to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust to install two automated doors at the Byham Theater.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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