Now debt-free, August Wilson Center to offer bookings again
In coming months, the newly debt-free August Wilson Center for African American Culture will get a second chance.
The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust this week will begin taking rental bookings for events in mid-May and beyond at the gleaming Downtown building, which has been sitting dark for most of the nearly six months since the conclusion of a tangled battle for control.
Still unclear are precisely when the so-called “AWC 2.0” will restart as a fully fledged cultural center with regular programming, and who will be in charge of running it.
The center has been closed since it fell into a court-appointed conservatorship in November 2013 amid dire financial straits.
The nonprofit cultural venue now is owned by The Pittsburgh Foundation, whose CEO, Max King, has joined The Heinz Endowments President Grant Oliphant and Richard King Mellon Foundation Director Scott Izzo on a temporary governance board.
In December, the executives set a June deadline for appointing a permanent board to take charge of the center. King had hoped to do so by March.
The three executives still are vetting potential board members and monitoring plans for programming, The Pittsburgh Foundation spokesman Doug Root said. They want a three- to five-member board made up mostly of black members with expertise in nonprofit facilities management, real estate, business and finance.
The center may reopen to the public this summer before the permanent board is in place, Root said.
King has said he does not anticipate appointing any members who were on the center’s previous leadership teams.
Tim Stevens, president and CEO of the Black Political Empowerment Project, said the foundations should select some former board members for advisory roles to help the new leadership understand the original mission and avoid past mistakes.
“It’s understandable that there may be some hesitation, particularly because the story was so widely covered and covered in the sense of it being a problem,” Stevens said. “But we are hopeful that there will be those who will see the vision, see the possibility and be willing to come forward if requested to in fact serve.”
Named for Pulitzer Prize-winning Hill District playwright August Wilson, the $40 million center at Liberty Avenue and William Penn Place opened in 2009 with at least $17.4 million coming from taxpayers and $20 million from foundations. It struggled to pay bills from the day it opened, incurring nearly $12 million in debt after failing to budget for construction overruns.
“We never were able to overcome that problem,” Stevens said. “The good thing is because of what happened, there is no debt going into the August Wilson Center 2.”
John Small of Peters, vice president of Chicago-based Andes Capital Group, said the center’s mission has to be clear. He has more than 30 years’ experience in investment banking, including public financing for projects such as convention centers, stadiums and schools.
“I also think there needs to be some type of revenue-producing option,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a restaurant or a hotel, but something that has a steady cash flow so that they’re not 100 percent dependent on the philanthropy of people giving for the arts.”
The foundations, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald succeeded in thwarting plans by a private developer to buy the property, share space with the center and build a 200-room hotel above it — an outcome they argued would have “destroyed” the nonprofit’s mission.
The Peduto administration, however, wants to work with the new board on developing the center’s air rights. The designs from the center’s original architect included a 10-story hotel tower.
Prominent businessman and former Steeler Chuck Sanders, owner of Savoy restaurant in the Strip District, reiterated his desire to open a Savoy bistro inside the center. His $90,000 purchase of the center’s liquor license prevented the sale from collapsing amid past-due taxes and payments owed to a group of stagehands.
The Pittsburgh Foundation bought the center from mortgage holder Dollar Bank for $7.96 million on Nov. 5 after a contentious receivership process that dragged on for nearly a year. The $8.85 million deal that made the sale happen included $3.15 million in taxpayer money.
The foundations have pledged to contribute $4.2 million to support the center’s operations for at least its first three years. They hired the cultural trust to run day-to-day maintenance.
A committee led by Janera Solomon, executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty, has been tasked with developing the center’s programs. Solomon did not return calls for comment.
Meanwhile, Stevens said he is rallying black organizations across Western Pennsylvania to make annual commitments to the overhauled center: “It’s important that the African-American community show some level of ongoing support.”
For more information about booking events at the center, visit CulturalDistrict.org. Details will be posted later this week.
Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.