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The August Wilson Center: Apologize, Mr. Birru

| Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

It's bad enough that those running Pittsburgh's August Wilson Center for African American Culture ran it into the ground because of a lack of business acumen. What's reprehensible is that at least one person associated with the insolvent black cultural center appears to be intimating that racism is playing a role in not saving it.

Allegheny County Orphans' Court on Friday will consider a court-appointed conservator's recommendation to sell the $40 million facility. Judith Fitzgerald, a retired U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge, says the Liberty Avenue complex, built with $17.4 million in public subsidies, has “no continued viability.”

The center, which opened in 2009, steadfastly downplayed any troubles. It blamed the media for reporting “perceived problems.” Then word came that the facility hadn't been paying its mortgage or even its insurance. Dollar Bank foreclosed. Benefactors refused to throw good money after bad. Now there's even word that required employee withholdings and benefits were deducted but not properly forwarded.

The Wilson Center story is a classic tale of mismanagement and denial. But for Mulugetta Birru, the former director of Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority and an early champion of the facility, there's something else going on. “I wonder if the (Heinz) History Center or the Benedum (Center) was being shut down what people would say.”

The intimation is as clear as it is outrageous. And given the center's hefty taxpayer and foundation support, Mr. Birru owes the community an apology.

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