Reprieve? Wilson Center twitches.

An epilogue to this production in the cycle:

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said he and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto have been quietly trying to broker a plan to salvage the debt-ridden August Wilson Center for African American Arts and expect to make an announcement within the next few days. (Trib, Debra Erdley)

We are all agreed the Center still needs a strategic plan, and a center with community confidence. Anything from having to do with public schools to air rights seems up for debate.

RELATED: We should probably be reading more Wilson and building him less, but c’est la vie. Then again, why fight it?


UPDATED REFLECTIONS: The only visual design note in Radio Golf was a Tiger Woods poster. That’s not nothing. Also there was a solid menu note if the financial sustainability package includes food service. We have refined our preliminary exterior design notes for any new vertical construction thusly: “Brightly painted and well-crafted old home, artfully run down, with Play-salient art pieces adorning it baroquely, as well as a metal fire escape somewhat conjuring a treehouse atmosphere.”

More importantly: the insistent message of the actual play — the culmination of the entire Pittsburgh or Century cycle — seemed to be:

Conduct your business ethically. Yes, you know what that means already. Yes that can be hard, unfair to you personally, or seem unimportant compared to the great important things you are working on. But there is just no other way besides knowingly living as a total crook. And wherever that puts you, that puts you. (And depending upon what the viewer imagines happens next after the curtain falls, that might not be such a bad prospect.)

We do not feel comfortable describing why Radio Golf was so named. It has to do with the idea that when one works for and then experiences success, it becomes easy to convince oneself that one knows a lot more about achievement than one actually does. It can actually make one a bit dumber about it.

There must be considerably more to the whole Pittsburgh / Century cycle than that, but we have yet to read the preceding nine plays.

NEWS UPDATE: AG Kane and the board recommend a certain new conservator.

23 thoughts on “Reprieve? Wilson Center twitches.

  1. Bram Reichbaum

    It strikes me there are two tracks:

    1) The track of helping the AWC board in this period of uncertainty to refresh itself into that which the community will have confidence in, and…

    2) The track of brainstorming sustainable strategic plans which include the site for the AWC's consideration. These might eventually include such elements as partnerships with Pittsburgh Public Schools, or the addition of a boutique hotel and veranda lounge atop the present AWC building utilizing only period-appropriate Hill District architectural elements on the visible exterior faces of the addition. Plus a lighted business ID sign. Yes, the combined result would appear striking.

    Anyway, two tracks. Same time. Dollar Bank holds the football until each of these move along.

  2. Uncle Darren

    I think they should broker a plan where they sell that building downtown, and restructure the foundation in a new, less expensive locale. Not sure who wants a building shaped like an ancient Swahili boat, but the August Wilson center should be a bridge reconnecting Pittsburgh to the Hill District; Wilson's home and setting for so many of his narratives.

  3. Nancy

    Alas, Darren, the debt is such that any sale would most likely only cover the amount owed: $7 mil to Dollar Bank, around $40K to Duquesne Light, and so on and so on, and growing daily.

  4. Jerry

    It's mildly shocking that you're the first person (the first person I've seen, at least) to make the connection between this debacle and Radio Golf. Very astute.

    You're gonna love the rest of the cycle. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was my favorite. It left me with my mouth hanging open in some parts.

  5. Jerry

    I was just saying the same thing the other day. Make it a smaller place, in the Hill (near the Consol Center if that helps ease the fright some may feel about going deeper into the Hill), focused on either African-American playwrights or regional playwrights. Focusing only on August Wilson would probably be too narrow, unfortunately.

    Do the century cycle there every year or two. Invite top black talent from around the country to act in the plays. Make it a destination for people from outside Pittsburgh.

    I don't know if this is feasible or not, but it's significant that in 5 minutes, someone who knows nothing about theater or promotions came up with a plan every bit as viable as the original plan for the AWC.

  6. BrianTH

    Of course a hypothetical future August Wilson Center reborn as a new cultural program in a different location would not necessarily need to have any sort of financial continuity with the present August Wilson Center (the one that has all the debts). In other words, the very idea of the AWC, and whatever latent support that idea has among local foundations, government officials, and so on, is not something a creditor of the present AWC can actually seize.

  7. BrianTH

    I agree with you two about the idea of restarting the AWC in a Hill location being both promising and attractive. But to be fair to the original planners of the AWC, it is around 15 years now since they decided on a Downtown location, and both the present conditions and future prospects of the Hill have improved radically since then. So the idea of a Hill location has a lot more intuitive appeal now than it would have back then.

  8. BrianTH

    I'm not saying it is necessarily a good idea, but I think it is worth noting that CAPA is one of the most significant successes of PPS, and it may make sense for PPS to think about CAPA expansions even as most of the system is still being downsized. And if that is true, then if they could get a suitable expansion space on the cheap, it may well be a cost-saving decision in the long run. That's a lot of ifs, but I don't think we can rule it out automatically.

    Incidentally, not that it is untrue that PPS is still in financial distress, but the recent millage increase is really just a partial offset of the overly-large post-reassessment millage adjustment (overly-large because after appeals, it appears that was not a revenue-neutral adjustment, but in fact a revenue cut). Again, though, it is in fact true that PPS is still in a dire budgetary situation and has to be very smart about how it deals with facilities (among other things).

  9. Anonymous

    “Just a partial offset” is all you say? I say that PPS needs to get their own house in order and not be going all emotional for CAPA. Bill Isler , Ms Hazuda and the PG said that the board has resisted the reality of this fiscal situation and all of this emotional hand wringing is making me sick. Everyone wants to throw money at the AWC. My concern is that this is my TAX MONEY.
    Can I ever have a say in this town? Is there ever going to be enough? Damn, my taxes went sky high with the assessment and the school board is out of their minds. With Bill just in I pray that he can settle everyone down from this free spending ideology that has overtaken this city.

  10. Anonymous

    This entire debate is somewhat odd. It seems that this debate is being framed as a structure having more importance that the mission or its namesake. Why does it matter at all where the AWC is located? It certainly stinks that a lot of money would be wasted, but that seems to be more of Dollar Bank's problem at this point. But why are the AWC supporters so fixed on the structure itself? They seem to be arguing that if the AWC doesn't exist in that exact plot of land on Liberty avenue that it can't exist at all. Or, they seem to be suggesting that a building called the AWC has to exist or the region has failed. That is a very odd straw man argument. What is the purpose of the center? Is it a museum, event space, a restaurant? Who knows. Part of the problem that no one wants to talk about is that the black community doesn't want it to be run by white people. If the AWC is going to exist, if it is run by the cultural trust it would be considered a failure. But would it actually be a failure? The PG's comments today were interesting. Could it be run as a cultural center for lots ethnic groups in Pittsburgh? And could AWC be one component? The Irish Center in Greenfield has been floundering for years, but does any care? No one seems to be calling it a failure of the region to look out for Irish history in Pittsburgh. Maybe we need something that allows lots of groups to display culture and history. The problem with focusing just on the Hill (as the PG points out) is that the building isn't in the Hill. The AWC itself (not the structure) could very well exist in the Hill in a smaller building with a small intimate venue for plays. Or, the AWC could perform in a building run by someone else, i.e., the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theater. But you see we need to divorce this idea that the AWC as a mission is tied to a particular piece of metal and concrete. Framing it that way is a failure in thinking. If we changed our thinking we might even realize the the AWC as a mission could exist in the building where it currently resides, but with other groups and as a tenant rather than a landlord. Or, the AWC as a mission might find that its mission is better served somewhere else. But first someone needs to tell us what that mission is. I don't see many single ethnicity buildings around town that survive, especially of the size of the AWC. It has nothing to with the fact that it is focused on African American culture. It would not work for Irish, Italian, Poles, Germans or any other group that has an even larger population to draw from.

  11. Bram Reichbaum

    Anon, you're right it makes sense to consider a move, but let's not pretend there are no points in favor of staying put at all. It is Downtown, in the Cultural District, with lots of foot traffic and it could be more prominent with better marketing / programming. The Cultural District has enough going on already, that a theater facility devoted to culturally challenging work isn't a bad idea. Plus we basically just built the thing. It sounds like the next conservator is on the right track in helping to foster new and sensitively appropriate leadership at the Center, and then hopefully it can manage the extent to which the Cultural Trust would be a partner. I don't see any reason why the AWC needs to be totally subsumed, if its mission grows more adaptable and creative.

  12. BrianTH

    Yes, it was only a partial offset. Recall that PPS dropped the millage from 13.92 to 9.65, and it is only going back up to 9.84. And my understanding is that they are still expecting to get less in total revenues than a revenue-neutral millage cut would have produced.

    By the way, if your taxes went “sky high” after the reassessment AND the millage cut, it means your property was radically under-assessed even relative to your fellow property owners, and you have not been paying your fair share of property taxes for many years.

  13. Anonymous

    I don't think we are disagreeing. It might stay and it might move. I am just suggesting that the first step is divorcing the ownership of the bricks and mortar from the mission. Then, and I suggest only then, can a real strategic plan be considered and implemented.

  14. Duquesne Whistle

    Left-field thought: turn the August Wilson Center building into a maker-space to rival Tech Shop. Give the black community (and everyone else) in Pittsburgh the space, tools, and resources to *create new cultural works* & celebrate them.

  15. Bram Reichbaum

    I can't see it. A marquee tech maker-space in the Cultural District is a really wonderful idea, as they both attract creative minds from different communities, but I wouldn't think this would satisfy the Wilson Center's active constituency very well at all. A step too far in terms of mission.

  16. Anonymous

    Listen, how's this for fair? I don't care to be throwing my taxes down the latest and loudest rat hole. As soon as 2 democrats get together and decide what the newest needy cause is we run towards it with buckets of money to put out the fire.
    I don't know why I bother even engaging here. Never once has it been suggested that something might now be worthy of more tax money. When will my fair share ever be fair enough? The next scheme will require my share to be even MORE fair.
    I'm fiscally conservative in my own dealings and I just would like to know that my fair share is valued and not pissed away by the PPS or AWC.

  17. Bram Reichbaum

    What specifically in regards to Pittsburgh Public Schools would provide you with sufficient assurance, Anon 5:20, so that the next time your school taxes are mistakenly reset too low because of a math error you won't mind it being fixed?

  18. BrianTH

    As far as property assessments are concerned, they should do them regularly so as to avoid unfair distribution of the tax burden. I'd personally suggest no more than every three years, and annually would be even better.

    Anyway, it is a fact that in recent years PPS local revenues have been trending down slightly in nominal terms, which means they have actually been declining pretty significantly in real terms. Meanwhile PPS has been cutting teachers and staff and closing schools. Of course all this is happening as enrollment in PPS's traditional school is still declining, but on the other hand they are also making more and more contributions on behalf of charter students, and the state has recently shifted more of that financial burden on to host districts.

    The state is going to do an audit which may shed even more light on these subjects. But if “fiscally conservative” means doing everything possible to avoid tax increases within the relevant jurisdiction, then PPS certainly has been that–arguably to a fault.

    Of course there is an alternate definition of “fiscally conservative” which does not necessarily equate fiscal responsibility with lower tax rates in every possible situation–but that usage seems to have fallen out of vogue.

  19. BrianTH

    Some quick math.

    Local revenues in the 2009 Final Budget (this is the earliest budget for which I could easily get comparable numbers) were $274.0M, of which about $153.0M were net real estate tax.

    In the 2013 Final Budget, local revenues were $272.4M, which in 2009 dollars (meaning adjusted for inflation) is only about $250.9M. Net real estate taxes were $156.1M, which is about $143.8M in 2009 dollars.

    So then the 2014 Preliminary Budget came in at $268.1 million in local revenues, $145.8M in net real estate taxes. The large drop in net real estate taxes is largely due to appeals: in 2013 there was $17,790,355 per mill (gross) for real estate taxes, and in 2014 it is $16,773,259 per mill.

    Anyway, we don't know yet the inflation adjustment for 2014 to 2009, but just using the 2013 to 2009 adjustment you get $246.9M for total local revenues and $134.3M in net real estate taxes. At a rough estimate, when finally adjusted for 2014 it should be around 2% lower still.

    The 2% millage increase will add back in about $3M in net real estate taxes, but you should be able to see now how that fits into the overall picture. Net real estate taxes and total local revenues will still be down from both 2013 and 2009 in nominal terms. And if you then adjust for inflation, 2014 total local revenues and net real estate taxes will be down even a bit more from 2013, and down a LOT more from 2009.

    Just basic facts to keep in mind as people discuss PPS's budgetary issues. Certainly declining local revenues in real terms is not their only budgetary problem, but it is one of their problems. And yet to hear some people talk, it is as if the exact opposite were the case.

  20. BrianTH

    By the way, if you are a total budget geek, you might be asking yourself the following question: how did net real estate taxes go up $3M from 2009 (pre-reassessment) to 2013 (the first post-reassessment year)? I thought the reassessment was supposed to be revenue neutral?

    Good question! There is a little natural growth in the tax base, so in fact by 2012 (the last pre-reassessment year) net real estate taxes had climbed to about $154.1M. But the main answer is that in 2013, PPS first set what would have been a revenue-neutral (actually slightly revenue-negative) millage, then took the 0.16 mill annual increase allowed under Act 1. The anticipated revenue associated with that increase, about $3.4M, was put into escrow to allow for resolving appeals.

    So what happened is that appeals actually knocked down the tax base even more than they were estimating, such that for 2014 the resulting reduction blew way past this escrowed amount, and as previously noted, even taking the Act 1 increase again this year still is only partially offsetting the appeal reduction.


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