Group fights to save August Wilson Center

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Four founding members of the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture are hoping they can convince a judge that they have a plan to save the floundering Downtown facility and prevent a possible foreclosure.

Mulugetta Birru, the former city Urban Redevelopment Authority executive director who is representing the members, said Wednesday that he plans to present the group's ideas Monday as part of a hearing before Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Christine A. Ward.

The hearing is being held to determine if a receiver, the Baker Young Corp., should be appointed to operate the troubled facility. Dollar Bank petitioned to foreclose on the property last month when the center defaulted on its $7 million mortgage.

Mr. Birru, who was instrumental in creating the center, said the group will not present a formal plan but rather an approach that is aimed at reviving the facility and helping it to thrive.

That approach would involve a new board of directors and staff for the center, an alliance with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and local foundations, and broader participation by African-American arts and cultural organizations.

Mr. Birru said the group wants to develop a business plan for the center with the help of a national consultant. But he added that the community must find a way to pay off the center's mortgage and provide operating support if it is to thrive.

With the help of the public, the foundations and others, he believes that is possible, noting that millions were raised to build the center.

"It can be done and it should be done," he said.

Mr. Birru argued that the center's problems stemmed in large part from the mortgage. The center, he said, "opened with an $11 million debt with no idea of where the revenue would come from to pay for it. That's what completely diverted the attention of the board. Instead of managing programming, they were managing debt."

At the same time, Mr. Birru said a new board should be appointed "to build confidence in the community. We cannot do it with the existing board. We need a new board."

Mr. Birru said he has been meeting with local foundations and others to discuss the group's plans. While Mr. Birru hopes to pitch the group's ideas to Judge Ward on Monday, Aaron Walton, the center's current board chairman, called the initiative "premature."

"Anyone can propose suggestions and we'll listen to them," he said. "No one has brought us anything that we're not working on ourselves as a board."

Asked about the current board's plans, he said, "We're not at a point where we want to discuss it openly." He declined further comment.

Other founding members who are part of Mr. Birru's group are former city councilman Sala Udin, Nancy Washington and Yvonne Cook. Janera Solomon, executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, also is part of the group but not a founding member.

Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262.

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