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August Wilson Center's financial woes leave little guys in a lurch

| Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014, 11:09 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Richard Harkins, 35, of Brookline, works to take down stage lights in the grid above the O'Reilly Theater where he works as a stagehand in Downtown on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014. Harkins is among a group of stagehands yet to be paid several thousand dollars for a show they worked last October at the August Wilson Center.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Richard Harkins, 35, of Brookline, stands for a portrait between the curtains to side stage at the O'Reilly Theater where he now works as a stagehand in Downtown on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014. Harkins is among a group of stagehands yet to be paid for work last October at the August Wilson Center.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Richard Harkins, 35, of Brookline, stands for a portrait under the blue side stage lights at the O'Reilly Theater where he now works as a stagehand in Downtown on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014. Harkins is among a group of stagehands yet to be paid for work last October at the August Wilson Center.

Richard Harkins wants the $1,227 paycheck he earned in October.

The 35-year-old stagehand knows his claim amounts to pocket change against the $10 million in debts plaguing the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

But for Harkins, getting stiffed for 103 hours of work on three back-to-back Pittsburgh Cultural Trust events at the August Wilson Center meant nearly missing a mortgage payment, borrowing from extended family to cover bills and struggling to buy Christmas presents for his wife and three children.

“It was like a kick in the head,” said Harkins, 35, of Brookline. “We were guaranteed we were going to have our money; I just wanted to know where that money went.”

He's among 59 stagehands and a slew of small vendors owed money for work completed last year amid the August Wilson Center's dire financial straits and subsequent fall into conservatorship in late November. As the broader battle for control of the Downtown building plays out in court, Harkins and others like him are stuck wondering whether they'll ever be paid.

“These are people who went to work in good faith, expecting to get paid, and they're still waiting,” said Ernest Orsatti, the Downtown attorney representing the stagehands union employees in a set of lawsuits against the August Wilson Center.

The center owes about $33,000 in compensation to employees with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 3, according to court documents Orsatti filed. That includes about $22,200 in wages, $6,000 in deductions from employee paychecks and $5,000 in promised benefits. The total would be $10,000 higher, but an anonymous donor pitched in $10,000 toward the bill this year.

The bulk of the wages owed goes to five employees each owed between $1,200 and $3,000. Most of their work went into a two-week build-out preparing the center's 486-seat theater for “Zimmermann & de Perrot,” a three-day show The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust put on Oct. 16-18.

The Cultural Trust paid the center for the labor — but the money didn't make it to the workers, Orsatti said. The union contends the center deducted union dues and vacation benefits from employee paychecks, but spent the money elsewhere.

Oliver Byrd, interim CEO of the August Wilson Center from April 2013 to mid-November, said during his tenure he contacted vendors daily to ensure they knew about the center's financial situation.

“We would never have entered into an agreement to do anything or put on any event without knowing the (funds) would be there to pay for it,” Byrd said. “When the court gave the key to the conservator, they took over the assets.”

Christopher Barker, 28, of Dormont is the stagehand employee owed the most — $2,895 plus benefits for 201 hours of work.

“Everybody keeps asking me about when they're going to get paid,” Barker said, “and all I can tell them is there's a legal battle above our heads right now.”

Court-appointed receiver Judith K. Fitzgerald is trying to stave off an Oct. 6 sheriff's sale of the August Wilson Center by closing a $9.5 million sale on the Downtown building and its air rights to hotel developer 980 Liberty Partners — a plan that has drawn staunch opposition from top civic leaders, local foundations, the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority and state Attorney General's Office.

The stagehand employees and other unsecured creditors could be repaid from proceeds of a sale, but they're last on the priority list. Fitzgerald, who racked up $691,000 in fees for herself, her lawyers and her consultants as of June, would be paid first, followed by Dollar Bank, which is owed more than $8 million and rising.

“It's a moving target with the ongoing court case, but our intention when we made the offer certainly was the unsecured creditors should be addressed,” said Matthew Shollar, of 980 Liberty Partners.

A $7.2 million back-up bid from a foundation coalition would not cover the full amount owed Dollar Bank, making it unclear whether under that outcome smaller creditors would be paid anything. It's up to the court to determine who gets paid and in which order, said The Heinz Endowments President Grant Oliphant, who represents the foundation coalition.

“We would love to see everybody repaid,” Oliphant said, “but what we're focusing on is buying this building to save it for the community.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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