'We cannot let his legacy down,' Wilson center advocates urge

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Four founders of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, leaders of local arts groups and several of the center's former employees met Saturday to brainstorm ways to pay off the nonprofit's $7 million debt and reorganize its board and programs.

Sala Udin, one of the center's founders, led Saturday's discussion. "With August Wilson's name on the building," he said, "we cannot let his legacy down." Wilson, who died in 2005, was one of America's great playwrights; most of his work is set in the Hill District.

In September, Dollar Bank went to court to foreclose on the center, which opened in 2009. The center is in default because it has not made a mortgage payment since the start of this year. A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 18 before Allegheny County Judge Lawrence O'Toole. The judge has been asked to appoint a conservator to manage the center.

The center borrowed $11 million from Dollar Bank to complete construction of the $40 million building. Neil Barclay, the first executive director, resigned in May 2009, a few months before the building was set to open. Marva Harris, a retired PNC Bank executive, served as interim director. She attended Saturday's meeting.

Mr. Udin acknowledged that board members did not tackle the center's financial problems.

"One of the things we did not do -- we did not develop a plan to repay that $11 million. We hoped that the capital development committee would come back because they could raise the big bucks," Mr. Udin said.

Conflicts developed between board members. In June 2012, Andre Kimo Stone Guess, the second executive director, announced his resignation after two years on the job.

In August 2012, Mr. Udin said, he and board member Oliver Byrd tried unsuccessfully to reconstruct the center's financial records. "We needed a forensic accountant," he said, but the center's leaders lacked the money to hire one. So they relied on a CPA lent to them on a part-time basis by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust to do some forensic accounting, which prolonged the release of an audit.

"We put $42 million into this building. It costs $3 million a year to operate a fully functional program in this building," Mr. Udin said.

Mulugetta Birru, the former Urban Redevelopment Authority director who was instrumental in founding the center, said the debt must be paid off, a new, diverse board elected and a national consultant hired to devise a new programming strategy.

Charlie Humphrey, executive director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, said the center's leaders must deal immediately with the debt, set measurable goals for generating revenue, organize an army of volunteers to staff the facility and create a detailed plan for presenting programs.

Joe Wos is executive director of the ToonSeum, located directly across the street from the center. When the ToonSeum staged a Comic Arts Festival in May with 100 cartoonists, the event drew 3,000 people.

"We had 3,000 people who wanted to visit the galleries," at the August Wilson Center, Mr. Wos said. But center leaders only opened the lobby, he said, because they did not want to pay people to staff the galleries. He said center leaders told him he would have to pay the center $1,200 so it would remain open during the festival. He said he received a bill but never paid it.

"You have lost your center, figuratively," Mr. Wos said, adding that the organization has lost sight of its mission and lacks direction. Downtown business owners, he added, call the building "the August Wilson Fire Hall" because much of its activity comes from rentals.

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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