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August Wilson Center outlines path to financial stability

| Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, 3:15 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
The August Wilson Center for African American Culture on Liberty Avenue.

The head of the August Wilson Center on Tuesday announced a plan that focuses on dealing with the most pressing problems the financially troubled arts and cultural institution has had since opening in 2009.

“Today, the Center begins a new chapter,” said Oliver Byrd in a three-page letter distributed to the media and other organizations that outlines his turnaround plan.

“Not unlike other arts organizations, and culturally specific ones in particular, the August Wilson Center has found the road to sustainability to be particularly difficult,” Byrd said.

Byrd has set a 10-point agenda to prioritize the issues that need to be addressed but did not provide details on how those goals would be accomplished.

Byrd and other center staff did not respond to messages seeking additional details.

A “critical-self examination” of the center determined that its “existing business model was not sufficient to ensure the long-term sustainability of the organization,” according to the letter.

Since opening in 2009, the center along Liberty Avenue, Downtown, has been plagued by a $7.1 million debt because it did not raise enough money to cover construction costs.

Bringing in revenue has been a problem. Last year, it lost $1.8 million, more than twice the amount it took in.

According to Byrd's letter, an audit of the center's 2011-12 finances will be released in the next several weeks.

The audit is necessary before the Allegheny County Regional Asset District can award the center any funding for 2014. It is asking for $425,000 in taxpayer assistance.

“The (RAD) board is going to want to know what the plan is going forward for stabilizing its finances,” said David Donahoe, RAD's executive director.

The audit was due to RAD in March. RAD supports parks, libraries, stadiums and cultural groups with half of the proceeds of an additional 1 percent sales tax in Allegheny County.

The city's Urban Redevelopment Authority is withholding more than $1.4 million of a $2 million loan for operating expenses until the center produces the audit, according to Gigi Saladna, a spokeswoman for the URA.

URA officials declined to comment on Byrd's recovery plan.

Byrd's letter lists five factors that have hurt the center:

• The inability to pay its long-term debts.

• Instability in senior management that has “slowed progress toward a clear vision, path and structure for the future.”

• A loss of confidence among donors due to a lack of financial oversight.

• Damage to its public image by “frequent and inaccurate reporting by particular media sources.”

• “Tarnished community and artist relations” resulting from understaffing and strain on personnel.

Byrd has proposed raising more revenue by increasing the number of private events booked at the center. Increasing the number of arts groups that use the facility would help raise revenue, he said.

Center officials are working on developing programs that “create a closer link between the August Wilson Center and the late August Wilson himself,” according to the letter, which could include creation of educational content for teachers and a national award for those who bring the famed Pittsburgh playwright's work “to life.”

Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7987 or tlarussa@tribweb.com.

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