August Wilson Center for African American Culture lost $1.8M over fiscal year

| Wednesday, July 31, 2013, 11:40 p.m.

The August Wilson Center lost nearly $1.8 million in the last fiscal year — more than twice as much money as it made — and stayed afloat by not paying its bills.

“Four years into operating the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, the overall financial health of the organization is troubling,” the center admitted on its application for funding to the Allegheny Regional Asset District. RAD supports parks, libraries, stadiums and cultural groups with half of the proceeds of an additional 1 percent sales tax in Allegheny County.

The center's request for 2014 is among 104 applications totaling $102.5 million, including $3 million from the Port Authority of Allegheny County. The transit agency last year expanded the scope of organizations that normally receive RAD funding.

The Wilson Center's financial picture is one of its bleakest yet. It generated about $1.4 million in fiscal 2013 against $3.2 million in expenses, according to RAD documents. The red ink comes at a crucial time because local foundations have declined to give the Downtown center any more money until it provides an audit for fiscal 2012.

“Just as an example, The Heinz Endowments is holding back $300,000 of funds until they've received both the completed audit and a new strategic plan,” the center wrote in its RAD application.

Many funders have rules that preclude them from awarding grants to a nonprofit group that does not provide a current audit.

Oliver Byrd, interim executive director of the Wilson Center, could not be reached for comment. The center's application said an audit is in its second draft review.

Robert Vagt, president of The Heinz Endowments, reiterated Heinz's support of the Wilson Center.

“We believe that our grants, which so far total $8.5 million, articulately express our ongoing support for the center, not only the physical structure and programming, but also as a symbol of the critical importance of African American culture to this region,” he wrote in an email.

David Donahoe, executive director of RAD, called an audit “key” to the center's continued operation. He said RAD's final deadline for receiving the audit is Nov. 26, when its board adopts its budget for 2014. The center is tentatively scheduled to present its case for a grant on Aug. 29.

The Wilson Center is requesting $425,000 for next year from RAD, an increase of nearly 42 percent from what it received this year. Donahoe said an award of that size would be an “exception.”

RAD documents also revealed:

• The center avoided closing by delaying $800,000 in payments to vendors as of June.

• The center owes $480,000 a year in interest on its $7.1 million in debt.

• Individual contributions in fiscal 2012 declined 64 percent over fiscal 2011; board contributions declined 62 percent; corporate contributions, 38 percent; and county government, 47 percent.

• The number of donors to the center dropped from 795 in fiscal 2010 to 179 in fiscal 2012.

The center this year eliminated three positions and furloughed eight employees. One of those furloughed was Mark Southers, former artistic director of theater initiatives.

“It's real difficult to tell the truth about the matter because it's a major problem to keep a facility this young afloat,” Southers said. “It takes money. It takes really good leadership. The community needs to be involved a little bit more.”

Despite the pressing problems, the center remained upbeat in its application. Center officials said they are working with a consortium of banks on an agreement that will give them financial health.

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

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