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Pittsburgh's August Wilson Center still fighting fiscal issues

| Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, 11:51 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers Hannah Carter (left) and Julia Erickson are lifted up during a rehearsal, Thursday, of the mixed repertory performance “3x3” featuring three works by three different choreographers debuting in March at the August Wilson Center.

Even people who want to give money to the financially troubled August Wilson Center for African American Culture have had a hard time doing so.

The center, named for the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright from Pittsburgh, advertised a phone number to prospective renters of its facility that did not transfer to the appropriate staff, said the center's court-appointed conservator, retired bankruptcy judge Judith K. Fitzgerald.

Calls were not returned. Disappointed people took their business elsewhere.

“Since I've been made a conservator, I've been made aware of this problem, and now we got it fixed,” Fitzgerald said on Thursday.

The phone number to nowhere was just one of the center's problems. Cost overruns and insufficient fundraising saddled the center with insurmountable debt when it opened on Liberty Avenue, Downtown, in 2009.

The debt was so overwhelming that Dollar Bank, to which the center owes more than $7 million, sought to foreclose on it for failing to pay its mortgage and insurance.

Fitzgerald's job is get the center back on solid footing. A number of Martin Luther King Jr. Day events are scheduled for Monday. She plans to update her progress to the court on Tuesday and ask for an extension of her conservatorship, set to expire Feb. 3. She declined to provide details but continues to meet with potential supporters.

David Donahoe, executive director of the Allegheny Regional Asset District, a longtime funder of the center, said Fitzgerald met with him and RAD board Chairman Daniel J. Griffin in December. He said she asked RAD for $225,000, the portion of its $300,000 grant for 2013 that the center has not received.

Donahoe said Griffin told her that RAD would consider her request if some foundations release grant money they've withheld. The center's 2014 grant, also $300,000, remains in a contingency fund.

In the meantime, there is life at the Wilson center. In addition to the King holiday events, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has booked “3x3,” three ballets by three choreographers, at the center for March 7-9 and 13-16. The ballet will pay about $20,000 in rent, said Harris N. Ferris, executive director of the ballet.

“Obviously, we feel bad for their difficulties and we're hopeful they'll be worked out,” Ferris said. “We're looking forward to the time when they can do longer-term planning.”

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust booked the center for First Night on New Year's Eve and scheduled two other events: the Performing Arts Showcase for Youth, Jan. 22-25; and the Children's Festival, May 14-18.

“The facility is fitting for the programs that we have, and so we'll always try to do what's best for the presentation of the art,” said Shaunda Miles, spokeswoman for the trust.

The center has hosted King holiday events in the past, but Fitzgerald ran into some trouble scheduling this year's. Initially billed as a fundraiser, the events will be free with donations accepted.

“I couldn't put it together as a fundraiser in the short time we had,” she 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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