Rescuing August Wilson Center would be an expensive longshot
By Bill Zlatos
Published: Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
The potential foreclosure of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture could spur the center to solve its financial problems and rally the community around its revival, experts say, but it would cost someone a lot of money.
James Bauerle, a Downtown attorney who concentrates on banking and business turnarounds, likened the center named for the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright to institutions such as the Pirates and Penguins, both of which threatened to move amid financial difficulties.
“The community places a lot of value in the enterprise, and there are plenty of reasons to find a way to make it work,” he said.
Dollar Bank says the center, which opened Downtown in 2009, is $7.06 million in default on its mortgage and is asking a judge to appoint a receiver. Dollar Bank and August Wilson officials could not be reached on Wednesday.
Built with more than $13 million in public subsidies, the center ended the last fiscal year with a $1.8 million deficit, most of it tied to debt from the construction of its gleaming building on Liberty Avenue, Downtown.
Real estate experts agreed that the best option is for the center to keep running, and if it cannot, for someone to take over the building for a similar use, such as a performing arts venue, a school or a training center.
“Where there's a will, there's a way, but it's a difficult process,” said Jeremy Kronman, executive vice president of CBRE, which converted the Nabisco Bakery to the office and retail development Bakery Square in East Liberty.
Jim Kelly, a principal and broker with the commercial real estate firm Avison Young-Pittsburgh, said the center's advantages are its newness, the size of its first floor and its proximity to public transportation and the Cultural District. He said the building could be converted to housing or even a two-story, European-style luxury hotel.
“No matter what you do with it, you'll have to spend a lot of money converting it,” he said.
J. Kevin McMahon, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, said his group is waiting to help after the center decides what it wants to do. He said it is premature for the trust to think of buying the property because it lacks the money to assume the center's debt.
Mayoral candidate and City Councilman Bill Peduto expressed hope that the center may be able to turn itself around.
“With the actions being taken by the bank, there is hope of restructuring the center's finances and the potential of a sustainable future,” he wrote in an email. “With support from the foundation community, the Cultural Trust and others, I am certain that we can find a way not only to save this important treasure, but to improve it.”
The center's financial problems became more apparent on Tuesday, when an audit reduced the center's assets by half from 2011 to 2012. That same day, the Allegheny Regional Asset District tentatively excluded the center from its 2014 budget. It would be the first time in 15 years that RAD did not provide the center's funding.
The center's 70,000-square-foot building has been assessed at more than $3.1 million. It is exempt from real estate taxes because the center is a nonprofit.
Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or email@example.com.
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