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August Wilson Center's financials delay rescue, wait for plan

| Tuesday, May 14, 2013, 12:27 a.m.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
The August Wilson Center for African American Culture on Liberty Avenue.

Foundation and government money — the financial ballast that has helped keep the sailboat-shaped August Wilson Center for African American Culture afloat — may dry up until center officials provide a 2012 audit and business plan.

“We can't do any more grantmaking without the basic financial information on the state of the center and a reliable plan for it to move forward,” Doug Root, spokesman for The Heinz Endowments, told the Tribune-Review on Monday.

The center on Friday laid off eight to 10 of its 20 or so employees and is lagging behind on payments on its $7 million loan, center officials confirmed.

“We're in the process of completing our audits and have them all appropriately filed,” said Oliver Byrd, the center's interim president and CEO. “If someone is requesting the most recent, that would have an implication for funding.”

He said he hopes the layoffs, which targeted areas such as reception, greeters, the box office, marketing and programming, will last just a few months.

Heinz gave $9 million out of about $20 million that local foundations awarded for the construction and operation of the center on Liberty Avenue in Downtown.

Root said Heinz's stance on grants requiring an updated audit is the same Heinz would take with other applicants.

Officials with The Pittsburgh Foundation, which has given the center $3.1 million since 2001, agree.

“We could not even consider funding at this point because we have not had the requisite financial data or audit that are required for any grant,” said Grant Oliphant, president and CEO of the foundation.

David Donahoe, executive director of the Allegheny Regional Asset District, said he discussed the lack of an audit with Byrd about a week ago.

RAD, which supports libraries, parks, stadiums and cultural groups with half the proceeds of an added 1 percent sales tax in Allegheny County, recently adopted a policy that requires applicants to send an audit within nine months of the end of their fiscal year.

If they miss the deadline, RAD may give them another month. After that, Donahoe said, organizations are out of compliance and would not be eligible to apply for a grant.

Named after the Hill District native and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, the center opened in 2009, but has been the subject of controversy since backers conceived it. Community members debated the proper neighborhood for the building and whether the center should be independent or part of another organization.

The board went ahead with construction, although it had not raised all the money. As a result, it was forced to borrow to finish the building, a move that left it with less money for operations. It restructured an $11.2 million construction debt, reducing that to $7 million in January after receiving some foundation grants.

Donahoe said the center is too reliant on contributions and doesn't earn enough money from ticket sales and facility rentals. He said RAD expects 25 percent to 40 percent of a venue's income to come from such sources, but just 13 percent of the Wilson Center's did in fiscal 2011, according to RAD documents.

J. Kevin McMahon, president and CEO of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, said it is not unusual for new arts groups like the Wilson Center to experience “growing pains.”

He cited the Miami Performing Arts Center and the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia as examples of groups that experienced financial problems when they opened but went on to flourish.

“I certainly don't think this means we'll see the end of the August Wilson Center at all, but they certainly do have some real challenges ahead of them,” he said.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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