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Foundations buy August Wilson Center from Dollar Bank

Bob Bauder

It took nearly $9 million from foundations and public entities and more than a year of wrangling and deal-making, but the August Wilson Center for African American Culture Downtown landed Wednesday in a place it’s never been.

Out of debt.

Dollar Bank, which bought the center at a sheriff’s sale Monday, sold it to a coalition of local foundations for $7.96 million — the amount the center owed on its defaulted mortgage. They plan to breathe new life into the facility and reopen it next year.

The Heinz Endowments, Richard King Mellon Foundation, Pittsburgh Foundation and Pittsburgh-based Tull Family Foundation contributed $5.8 million, according to a foundation official. The Allegheny Regional Asset District and Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority chipped in about $3.15 million. Excess funds paid costs associated with the sale.

“I am very, very pleased that the foundations were finally able to close the deal with Dollar Bank,” said Hill District resident Sala Udin, who helped to found the center, served on its board and went to grade school with August Wilson, for whom the facility is named. “The August Wilson Center provides something to African-American children and whomever takes advantage of it that they cannot get oftentimes in school, in church and at home. It’s a cultural enrichment and empowerment that is essential to their growth and development.”

By foreclosing, Dollar Bank erased any liens and cleared the way for foundations to open it under management of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and two boards to be named.

URA Chairman Kevin Acklin, who is chief of staff to Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, said that is a key element in ensuring the center’s financial success.

“The biggest difference (from the past) is they’re not under a mountain of staggering debt,” Acklin said, adding that new programming provided by foundations would help build support. A nonprofit to be created by the foundations will own the building.

John Ellis, spokesman for The Heinz Endowments, said work will begin immediately to assess the building and create new structures for the center’s management and programming. The goal is to reopen by mid-2015.

“We are delighted and grateful that the ownership of the August Wilson Center is back where it belongs as a community asset,” he said.

The sale ends a seesaw battle to preserve the Liberty Avenue property as a cultural center during which foundations and elected officials jockeyed with creditors and a New York developer over plans to turn it into a hotel.

The URA paid $360,000 to 980 Liberty Partners, which bid $9.5 million to buy the building for a hotel but withdrew under URA and foundation pressure. The coalition also paid receiver Judith K. Fitzgerald $590,000.

“I am glad this is in the past and there is a bright future for this beautiful building and for an African American organization that’s going to be strong,” Fitzgerald said.

Named for Pulitzer Prize-winning Hill District playwright August Wilson, the $40 million center opened in 2009 with at least $17.4 million coming from taxpayers and $20 million from foundations.

It struggled financially from the beginning with inadequate revenue, poor attendance, unpaid bills and overwhelming debt and closed last year in receivership.

Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald lauded the foundations and authorities and for working to purchase the center.

“Our eyes now go to the August Wilson Center’s future and its reorganization,” Peduto said in a statement. “I look forward to working with our partners to preserve this cultural asset for generations to come.”

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or [email protected].


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