The August Wilson Center, with its unique sailboat design, has had to navigate choppy waters since it opened.

by Rebecca Nuttall
Courier Staff WriterOn Sept. 10, the August Wilson Center for African American Culture issued a letter detailing plans for the future of the financial failing institution. In the letter AWC interim President and CEO Oliver Byrd admitted the center’s shortcomings, which include “a lack of sufficient finance and accounting expertise,” but also pointed to the nearly 100 contracted events planned over the next year as a testament to its solvency.

However, on Sept. 26, the wind was again let out of the center’s sails when Dollar Bank initiated foreclosure proceedings. Since then little has been heard from AWC officials.

“Dollar Bank has filed for foreclosure. We were aware of that,” Byrd said on Sept. 30 before declining to comment further. “We expect to make a series of announcements later in the week.”

According to the petition filled in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, AWC defaulted on a $7 million mortgage with Dollar Bank. The complaint also says the center allowed their insurance to lapse.

“In so doing, the defendant risked substantial loss to the mortgaged property, injury to any persons which may have been involved in such loss, and injury to value of the lender’s liens and security interests therein, all without recourse because the defendant is insolvent,” the complaint said.

Adding insult to injury, the Allegheny Regional Asset District Board has denied a request for $425,000 from the center. Officials say they will provide the center with $300,000 in funding only once they solve their financial problems.

The board said it is withholding the money “in the hope and expectation that this matter will be resolved and that the center can continue with its important mission with a viable programming and financial plan.”

For months, rumors of the center’s demise have been swirling throughout the African-American community. Many had claimed the center would close at the end of May following a round of layoffs when 10 AWC staff members lost their jobs.

The $40 million AWC was opened in 2009 with $11.2 million construction debt. The debt was reduced to $7 million in January, however Dollar Bank says the newly adjusted monthly installment was never paid. The AWC is also in default on a loan from the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

A hearing on the Dollar Bank complaint was scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 1.

The center has received Regional Asset District, or RAD, funds beginning several years prior to its opening while the project was being planned and developed. The funds come from a share of Allegheny County’s 1 percent sales tax.

“It’s not necessarily the death knell, but this is clearly an organization that’s on the ropes,” said Ken McCrory, a principal in the Pittsburgh accounting firm of ParenteBeard who isn’t affiliated with either the center or the RAD board.

“What they need is a very large infusion of cash,” McCrory said. “There may be a financial angel out there who would do that, but they’re going to have to find that person soon.”

The center, which has received some $13 million in public subsidies over the years, has been wracked by poor attendance and ended fiscal 2013 with a $1.8 million deficit. A recent audit determined the value of the center’s building itself has dropped from $36.3 million in 2011 to $18.5 million, largely because of continued losses and cash flow problems.

The center is named for Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize playwright, who was born in Pittsburgh and whose plays are best known for chronicling Black culture. He died in 2005 in Seattle.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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