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August Wilson Center plea sent to state Attorney General Kane

| Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, 8:41 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
The August Wilson Center for African American Culture on Liberty Avenue.

Several weeks before state Attorney General Kathleen Kane got involved with the financially troubled August Wilson Center for African American Culture, six black political leaders sent her a letter asking that she assist with efforts to keep the cultural center open.

“We did not ask the attorney general to do anything specific with regards to the August Wilson Center,” Allegheny County Councilman William Robinson, D-Hill District, said on Saturday. “We sent the letter because she has oversight over charitable organizations, and we wanted to offer our support in any effort that is undertaken to help save this valuable asset.”

On Thursday, Kane filed a petition in Allegheny County Orphans' Court asking for a full accounting of the center's finances, noting that nearly $17.4 millio n in public money went toward construction of the building on Liberty Avenue, Downtown.

Robinson; state Reps. Jake Wheatley Jr., D-Hill District, and Ed Gainey, D-Lincoln-Lemington; county Councilwoman Amanda Green-Hawkins, D-Stanton Heights; and Pittsburgh City Councilmen Daniel Lavelle and Ricky Burgess signed the Oct. 10 letter to Kane.

It bemoans the “total lack of information” the public has received from the August Wilson Center and Dollar Bank, which holds a $7 million mortgage on the center. The bank started foreclosure proceedings in September when the center defaulted on its mortgage and allowed insurance on the building to lapse. The center finished fiscal 2013 with a deficit of $1.8 million.

The bank asked an Allegheny County Common Pleas judge to remove managers, appoint a receiver and stop the center from seeking bankruptcy protection.

The center's financial troubles can be traced to its decision to borrow heavily to finance construction of the building after fundraising efforts fell short.

The letter did not ask Kane to take any specific action. Instead, she was asked “to use your office to assure that if it is possible for the center to be saved, that such will be done.”

“It is our hope that all stakeholders collaborate and communicate toward the goal of finding a solution in the best interest of the public of Western Pennsylvania,” the letter stated.

The letter did, however, ask the attorney general to avoid “any (mortgage) refinancing plans” because the center lacks a “dedicated source of revenue to pay another mortgage.”

Kane's spokesman Joe Peters said on Saturday he was not familiar with the Oct. 10 letter, but that any correspondence to the attorney general is taken into account when decisions are made.

On Thursday, Peters said the AG's office was working with the center and Dollar Bank to restore the center's financial stability and ensure “good stewardship on the part of charitable boards.”

Burgess said he, too, signed the letter to inform Kane of the willingness of local black leaders to assist with efforts to rescue the Wilson Center.

“My hope is that we will be able to find a way to pay off the (Wilson Center's) debt and look for some creative ways to create partnerships that will provide the programming needed to sustain it,” Burgess said. “But the main purpose of the letter is to let the attorney general know that we're willing to do whatever is necessary to save this important cultural asset.”

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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