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Director sought to fix finances at August Wilson Center for African American Culture

| Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, 12:02 a.m.

Groups inside and outside the financially troubled August Wilson Center for African American Culture are scrambling to offer a candidate to steer the arts center out of foreclosure as the hours tick down to a court hearing on Monday.

The court is likely to appoint someone to replace Oliver Byrd, a member of the board of trustees who has been interim head since August 2012. Byrd did not return calls or emails seeking comment.

Aaron Walton, chairman of the board of the Wilson Center, said his group spent countless hours in meetings in recent weeks working on the problem. Lawyers for the gleaming Downtown center, the state Attorney General's Office and Dollar Bank, the note holder that initiated foreclosure proceedings on the $40 million facility, have a common goal of saving the facility for the public, Walton said.

“I have never seen the level of cooperation we have had with the bank, the Orphan's Court and the attorney general,” he said.

A group of the center's founders — three of whom are nonvoting members of its board — is promoting a candidate who would work as director without pay to restructure and stave off foreclosure on the region's pre-eminent African-American arts center.

Former Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh Director Mulu Birru, who is leading the group, declined to identify its candidate. He described the candidate as a well-qualified individual who could restore the confidence of government and foundation leaders who have been key funders of the center but began withholding support as its financial woes worsened.

Birru's group petitioned to intervene in legal proceedings and hopes to have a seat at the table on Monday when lawyers for the center, the attorney general and the bank meet for a hearing with Common Pleas Court Judge Lawrence O'Toole. The judge delayed a hearing on the appointment of a receiver last week because Wilson Center lawyer Stanley Levine told him that the organization did not have the money to pay one.

Walton said the board discussed several candidates with the attorney general, the bank and the Orphans Court, which is overseeing proceedings.

“I think the court will choose who it thinks will be in the best interest of the community,” Walton said.

Dollar Bank lawyer Eric Schaffer was traveling on Friday and could not be reached for comment.

The hearing is the latest round in litigation that began when Dollar Bank initiated foreclosure proceedings in September, saying the center, named for the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright from Pittsburgh, defaulted on its $7.06 million mortgage and allowed insurance on the facility to lapse.

The bank initially sought to oust the center's management, appoint a receiver and bar the center from seeking bankruptcy protection.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane joined the fray last month when she filed a petition seeking a full accounting of the Wilson Center's finances.

Kane, whose office oversees nonprofit organizations in Pennsylvania, noted that $17.4 million in public money went toward construction of the Downtown facility that opened in 2009.

Kane spokesman Joe Peters said officials with the Wilson Center have been cooperative, and he predicts the bank will delay foreclosure as long as that continues.

“All of the parties, our office, the trustees and the bank are continuing to talk and work cooperatively. The dialogue about appointing a receiver will continue, all in the interest of trying to keep the center open and in a better position,” Peters said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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