Orchard Hill Church set to rent space at August Wilson Center

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It might not be the answer to their prayers, but rent money from a North Hills church opening a second location in the August Wilson Center for African American Culture certainly couldn't hurt.

Starting this Sunday, Orchard Hill Church, an inter-denominational Christian community in Franklin Park, will hold weekly services at the financially troubled center on Liberty Avenue, Downtown.

"We are not the only answer to their financial problems, but we fully support their mission," said Kevin Cotter, Orchard Hill's business administrator.

Church officials said they've been charting plans to open a second location in the August Wilson Center for months, before the news late September that the institution is now facing foreclosure.

Dollar Bank is seeking to recover $7 million owed on the center's mortgage. And the Allegheny Regional Asset District announced this week that, for the first time in 15 years, it will not provide funding in its preliminary budget for the facility, citing the uncertainty over its future.

Oliver Byrd, the center's interim president and CEO, could not be reached. Privacy laws prohibit Dollar Bank from commenting, a bank spokesman said.

Board chairman Aaron Walton said the center has various rental agreements through 2014, and the arrangement with Orchard Hill is an appropriate and positive use of the building.

"We have made the center available to all aspects of the community, so this is another demonstration of the center trying to fulfill its mission," he said.

It wasn't clear how much Orchard Hill is paying the August Wilson Center in rent. Peter Sukernek, vice president and general manager at Howard Hanna Commercial Real Estate Services, said it could range from just covering expense of the space to "maybe a certain amount of money that does help the August Wilson Center."

"Anything you bring in is better than zero," he said.

Mr. Cotter said the building will serve as an ideal worship center, with seats for some 400 people close to the stage, giving the service an intimate feel. The space is similar to the church in Franklin Park, with theater-style seating, a live worship band and video elements, a church spokeswoman said.

Mr. Cotter said he can't speak to the future of the August Wilson Center, but that in the short term, he doesn't see any change for the church there.

"We're just hoping that this is something that they work through and it becomes a non-issue for everybody."

The service starts at 10:30 a.m. Sunday. A grand opening is scheduled for Oct. 13.

Meanwhile, a group of August Wilson center founding members, led by former Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority executive director Mulugetta Birru and former city councilman Sala Udin, have banded together in a bid to save the facility.

Mr. Birru, who was instrumental in creating the center, said he and the four others in the group are hoping to put together a plan to get the center back on track. He hopes to present it at a Nov. 4 hearing scheduled to consider the appointment of a receiver to operate the center.

"We are very determined to keep it alive," he said Thursday.

Mr. Birru said he has been meeting with local foundations and others in an effort to generate support for the group's effort.

"There is a lot of genuine interest in keeping it alive, but, of course, they are not happy with the way [the center] was being run," he said.

Mr. Birru said the biggest problem for the center has been that it opened its doors carrying an $11 million mortgage.

"There was no way a cultural center can carry that kind of burden to begin with. They ended up managing debt more than managing programming at the center," he said. "It failed before it started."

Besides Mr. Birru and Mr. Udin, others in the group are Nancy Washington, Yvonne Cook and Janera Solomon. All but Ms. Solomon, executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, are founding members and ex-officio board members.

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Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1944 or on Twitter @borntolede. Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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