August Wilson Center struggles to reduce $9 million debt
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Artistically, the August Wilson Center for African American Culture is poised to succeed with a slate of substantive programs and plans to stage six plays by its namesake in 2012. Financially, it's got a major mountain to climb because it is $9 million in debt.
In an application released Tuesday, the center requested $350,000 in operating funds from the Allegheny Regional Asset District. The application shows that the center has cash reserves of $541,042, giving it enough money to operate for six months. The center also has a $550,000 endowment.
Director Andre Kimo Stone Guess, said the nonprofit is restructuring an $11.2 million line of credit to extend repayment over five years. The center's 2011 budget is $3.2 million, and it employs 24 people.
"We've had our fair share of challenges," Mr. Guess said Tuesday, adding that it's not unusual for a new arts organization to struggle. "The operating cost of this facility is $750,000 a year. That's a hard pill to swallow," he said, adding that he would like to have a year's worth of operating capital on hand.
If the center succeeds in restructuring its debt to Dollar Bank and six other lenders, that will allow it to receive payment of a $1.2 million grant from the Kresge Foundation, lowering its debt to $7.8 million.
The center is also awaiting payment on pledged contributions of $2 million.
Mr. Guess is searching for a donor who will agree to provide $1 million in exchange for naming rights to the center's 486-seat theater. In addition, he hopes rights to name the studio could be in the high six figures, he said.
The center is home to four new resident ensembles. Mark Clayton Southers heads the August Wilson Center Theater Ensemble. Greer Reed-Jones leads the dance troupe while trumpeter Sean Jones directs the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra. Cecile Shellman curates visual arts exhibitions, including a current show that pairs artist Romare Bearden's work with photographs of Bearden by Frank Stewart.
"We are incubating them as resident companies. We raise money for them. We provide leadership for them," Mr. Guess said.
Aaron Walton, president of the center's board, said Stacey White recently joined the nonprofit and is doing grassroots fundraising by selling memberships to social groups, churches and fraternal organizations.
In 2012, the center will stage six plays by August Wilson, a project underwritten by Highmark. In 2013, the nonprofit plans a jazz festival to showcase locals alongside heavyweight trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
"You've got to have something to sell. The building is built. It's what's going on in the building that is going to make the building viable," Mr. Guess said. "If we concentrated on getting people into the building and didn't have anything for them to partake of, they wouldn't come back."
The center will subsidize the cost of some groups renting the building, Mr. Guess said.
"We're willing to subsidize all the way up to our fixed costs for the purpose of having people use the building."
Mr. Walton said the center is also working with the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority to "craft some type of instrument that will lead to the retirement of that debt."
The URA has invested $200,000 annually in the center, Mr. Walton said.
"That was part of an agreement we had with them. They invest in the center each year. They are interested in making sure that it is preserved. We've got to get through this year."
Doug Root, a spokesman for the Heinz Endowments, said the foundation has made two grants totaling $6 million to the Wilson Center's capital campaign. Of that, $5.75 million has been paid.
"The remaining $250,000 will be paid when center officials show that $150,000 has been raised from the African-American community," Mr. Root said.
Also, the Heinz Endowments gave the center a two-year operating grant totaling $500,000, half of which was paid out last year. The remaining $250,000 will be paid when the center submits a certified audit for 2010-11, a budget for that time frame and a programming plan, Mr. Root added.
First Published July 27, 2011 12:00 am