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RAD bets $333K taxpayer grant on August Wilson Center's comeback

| Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, 3:42 p.m.
The August Wilson Center in downtown Pittsburgh
James Knox | Tribune-Review
The August Wilson Center in downtown Pittsburgh

A taxpayer-backed grant-making agency is betting the August Wilson Center for African American Culture will make a comeback in 2016.

The Allegheny Regional Asset District's board voted Thursday to spend about $333,000 in local sales tax money on the relaunch of the formerly debt-crippled August Wilson Center, named for the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright from the Hill District.

Specifically, the board awarded a $333,333 “connections” grant to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust to spend on operating expenses for the center's $40 million Downtown building. The trust is in charge of the center's day-to-day management and rental bookings.

“I'm confident they will do well in the future with it,” said RAD board member Jackie Dixon.

Board member Dan Rosen said the grant will come from this year's budget and unspent funds from the 2015 budget. RAD funding for cultural and recreational groups flows from half of an extra 1 percent sales tax in Allegheny County.

J. Kevin McMahon, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, said the grant will help the trust's staff handle the security, upkeep and programming at the center, instead of the center's having to hire employees to do those tasks.

“It gives us the opportunity to accentuate the building's relationship with the community, and encourage others to provide programming,” said Michael Polite, a board member at the August Wilson Center.

The building is owned by The Pittsburgh Foundation, whose CEO Maxwell King sits on the center's temporary governance board alongside The Heinz Endowments CEO Grant Oliphant and Richard King Mellon Foundation Director Scott Izzo.

Its new leaders hope the silver boat-shaped facility will make a turnaround.

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 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.

Natasha Lindstrom and Matthew Santoni are Tribune-Review staff writers.

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