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Red ink hinders events at financially struggling August Wilson Center

| Monday, Aug. 12, 2013, 11:59 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Pedestrians walk near the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, Downtown. The center opened on Liberty Avenue in 2009.

Awash in red ink, the August Wilson Center for African American Culture finds itself unable to stage events, even as it seeks more money from the Allegheny Regional Asset District.

The center ended fiscal 2013 with a $1.8 million deficit and asked RAD for $425,000 in its application for 2014, a 42 percent increase over its last grant of $300,000. RAD is considering applications and is scheduled to adopt its budget Nov. 26.

“Their application indicates they have some activity scheduled, but not much over the summer,” said David Donahoe, executive director of RAD. “Doing exhibits requires commitments in advance, and they just don't have the resources to do that.”

The center on Liberty Avenue, Downtown, was built with at least $13 million in tax dollars. Open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, it requires a 50 percent deposit for tours of 25 people or fewer, its website says, and two weeks' written notice for cancellations. It posts hours at its entrance.

Attendance dropped from 12,534 in fiscal 2010 to 9,136 in fiscal 2012.

“There is no limit whatsoever on the types of programs that we can provide. Our hours of operation haven't changed. Rental events can go on at all hours of the day,” said Oliver Byrd, the interim co-director.

The center is experiencing growing pains that aren't unusual, he said, and officials continue to refine its business model.

The board of directors and staff are “looking at every aspect of the operation. There are lots of options, lots of opportunities and certainly some restrictions,” Byrd said, though he would not specify. “I am very optimistic about the future of the August Wilson Center. The future is not without its challenges.”

A consortium of banks, led by Dollar Bank, holds $7.1 million in debt on construction of the building. The center's RAD application said $480,000 of the center's $2.9 million budget is for interest on its debt.

“They are honoring their contractual commitments, but it's a pretty bare-bones operation. They're not doing any active new programming there,” said Joe Smith, vice president of Dollar Bank.

In its RAD application, it says, “The center's board and senior staff are working with a consortium of banks that will address the full range of financial issues faced by the center. Under this plan (called the forbearance agreement), the August Wilson Center will return to financial health.”

Several board members referred questions to Byrd or board Chairman Aaron Walton, who could not be reached.

“The board has requested all members of the board to defer all comments to the chairman of the board and interim president. They have the most current information, and they are currently speaking for the board,” said Sala Udin of the Hill District, an ex officio, non-voting board member who has acted in Wilson plays over the years.

The center is featuring “The Art of Elizabeth Catlett,” a 20th century sculptor and printmaker who died last year, through Sept. 13. Until the end of this month it is exhibiting eight oil paintings by local artist Marlana Adele Vassar, titled “Call and Response,” and photography by high school students, “Still Feel like Goin' On.”

None of the shows is live.

RAD has given $3.5 million for programs since 1998 to the African-American cultural group that gained a building when it opened the center in 2009.

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 and county put $6 million toward the building's construction and the state at least $6.5 million. The Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority gave $500,000 and sold the land to the center for $1, and loaned it $2 million.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, a longtime critic of the center, said, “It would be inappropriate for the URA in particular to allocate any additional money to the center. The same holds for the state. The burden is on the corporate and foundation community. That's got to come from those who led the public sector down a primrose path.”

On its 2012 application for RAD money this year, the center said it would offer a dance festival, three visual arts exhibitions lasting from two to five months and seven main-stage programs, including one dance, three theater, three music programs and a series of four dance cabarets.

The prior year, its application said its season would consist of 21 programs encompassing nearly 60 individual performances of dance, music and theater and the annual First Voice Festival and several visual arts exhibitions. It is unclear if all the events took place.

“While the center continues to offer programming, it does so at a reduced level as the new business model is put in place,” officials wrote in their application.

The center is named for the late playwright August Wilson, who grew up in the Hill District. Its website advertises events such as offCENTER on select Thursdays — performances by artists meant to attract people after work or evenings — and free readings of Wilson's plays on the first Mondays of each month. Officials hoped the readings would include works by up-and-coming playwrights and feature Pittsburgh and, occasionally, nationally known actors.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com. Staff writer Michael Hasch contributed to this report.

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