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A master at tapping potential

Organizers of Lexington's Creative Cities Summit last month made Bill Strickland the last speaker for good reason: He's a tough act to follow.

By the time the president of Pittsburgh's Manchester Bidwell Corp. had finished, the audience was on its feet. Everyone was applauding. Some were almost crying.

The MacArthur Foundation "genius award" winner and his work are likely to have a similar effect on many of the Kentuckians who visit Manchester Bidwell on Tuesday as part of a trip to Pittsburgh by Commerce Lexington and Greater Louisville Inc.

Strickland, 62, grew up in Pittsburgh's inner-city Manchester neighborhood. At age 16, his life was changed by a high school ceramics teacher and a visit to Fallingwater, the iconic Pennsylvania home designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Art's transformative effect on his life inspired Strickland to start the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, an after-school arts program for youth, while a student at the University of Pittsburgh.

Success there led him to be asked in 1971 to run the Bidwell Training Center for displaced and unemployed workers in what was then a steel-mill city in decline. (He also became an airline pilot, flying Boeing 727s for Braniff Airways in 1980-81. In 2007, he co-wrote the book Making the Impossible Possible.)

Manchester Bidwell now teaches ceramics, photography, digital imaging and graphic design to about 3,900 youths each year. An offshoot, MCG Jazz, brings in some of jazz's greatest musicians to perform in its concert hall and record on its label, which has won four Grammys. The center also trains unemployed adults to raise commercial orchids, and it works with local employers to prepare them for jobs as gourmet cooks and pharmaceutical technicians.

Strickland's philosophy, which appeals to liberals and conservatives alike, challenges conventional wisdom about what poor people can achieve. It focuses on excellence, personal responsibility, entrepreneurship and good design.

"If you don't remember anything else I say today, remember that environment drives behavior," he told those at the Creative Cities Summit. "If you build world-class environments, you get world-class performers."

He showed photographs of Manchester Bidwell's inspiring architecture, filled with natural light. The center is decorated with fresh flowers and serves students gourmet food prepared by its chefs-in-training.

"Sunshine and good food are for everybody on the planet, not just rich people," Strickland said. "Children deserve fresh flowers in their life. The cost is incidental."

Strickland said he has never had vandalism at Manchester Bidwell, even though it "is the same neighborhood as my old high school, which is in lockdown most of the time."

But sunlight, gourmet food and fresh flowers are merely symbols of Strickland's guiding principle: Everyone has value and potential.

"The only thing we have determined about poor people is that they don't have any money, and that is a curable condition," he said. "We have to turn liabilities into assets. All these millions of people who are on public assistance could be doing things for this country."

Strickland sees the arts as a tool to spark young people's imaginations and inspire them to succeed.

"There's nothing wrong with poor kids that sunlight and good food and affection can't cure," he said. "We have to make schools exciting, because if kids are excited there, you can teach them something."

Strickland is trying to replicate Manchester Bidwell's success in other cities, including Cincinnati. There were efforts to start one in Lexington a couple of years ago, but money couldn't be found. Since the Creative Cities Summit, those efforts have resumed — and next week's trip to Pittsburgh just might fuel them.

Anthony Wright, the city's economic development director, was part of a lively discussion on that idea at the Now What, Lexington? follow-up conference. Community garden activists in the East End think a Manchester Bidwell-like program in Lexington could focus on training people for jobs in local food production and processing.

Developer Phil Holoubek, who has been part of those discussions, likes the concept, and he likes the Kentucky Conference for Community and Justice's plan to create a social innovation center for fledgling non-profit groups. "I think it all could morph into something great," he said.

Replicating Manchester Bidwell in Lexington will require money. More importantly, though, it will require committed people with the vision that Bill Strickland expressed so well: "I think we have the ability to save this world while we're in it. We can cure the cancer of the spirit."