August Wilson Center finances hamper search for conservator

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The precarious financial condition of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture is complicating efforts to save it.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Orphans Court Judge Lawrence O'Toole was forced to delay the appointment of a conservator Thursday to manage the center after the attorney for the facility said it could not guarantee that he or she would be paid on a timely basis.

That, said center attorney Stanley Levine, is hampering talks with potential conservators. "It's a ginger negotiation and a ginger discussion," he said.

Judge O'Toole gave Mr. Levine and lawyers for the state attorney general's office and Dollar Bank until Nov. 18 to try to resolve the situation or perhaps face the prospect of having a bank-chosen receiver appointed to oversee the Downtown facility.

The appointment of a conservator to manage and care for the center as it tries to nurse its way back to solvency typically is paid for by the revenues generated by the institution. But Mr. Levine said the center's revenues aren't keeping pace with its obligations.

"We don't have the type of cash flow in our organization to assure people that they will be paid in the short term," he said.

The center, he noted, is not receiving funding from the Allegheny Regional Asset District, which is holding most of its 2013 allocation in escrow because of the facility's financial problems. Funding from foundations also has dried up.

Nonetheless, he said he is in discussion with possible conservators who may be willing to work "on a deferred payment basis." He added he is confident he can find a "very capable person willing to take this job."

"I think that we will find someone who recognizes the importance of undertaking the position and is willing to absorb the short-term cost of not being paid on a current basis or at least not being completely paid on a current basis in order to move the ball along," he said.

If the center isn't able to find a conservator, Dollar Bank could push for the appointment of its own receiver whose obligation would be to the bank, not to the center's board or its mission or the community as a whole.

Eric Schaffer, the bank's attorney, said Dollar remains "very concerned" about the health of the center but supports the effort to find a conservator to run the facility, named after the late playwright August Wilson, who grew up in the Hill District.

However, he stressed to Judge O'Toole that the bank would like to see a firm deadline set for that search. Dollar, he said, has not received any mortgage payments from the center and has had to pay the center's insurance for the second time this year.

Judge O'Toole recognized the need for quick action given the center's increasingly desperate financial plight.

The bank moved to foreclose on the center in September after it defaulted on a $7 million mortgage and didn't pay the building insurance. Last week, state Attorney General Kathleen Kane secured a court order to get a full accounting of the center's finances.

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