Silberman wants to use Pittsburgh model for Fayette vocational center

PITTSBURGH — Efforts to replicate Pittsburgh's famous Manchester Bidwell training center in Lexington hit the fast track Tuesday after founder Bill Strickland spoke to visiting chamber of commerce delegations from Lexington and Louisville.

Fayette County Schools Superintendent Stu Silberman — who had not heard Strickland's presentation at the Creative Cities Summit last month in Lexington — said Strickland's program seemed like a perfect model for a $19 million facility the school system is planning on 82 acres of surplus federal property it is being given off Leestown Road.

"I'm really fired up," Silberman said. "I think there's some pretty phenomenal opportunities here for that to happen."

Strickland met immediately with Silberman; Anthony Wright, Lexington's economic development director; and developer Phil Holoubek, who has been among those interested in bringing such a center to Lexington.

Follow-up meetings have been scheduled to see if the Manchester Bidwell model is right for Fayette schools, or could come to Lexington in another form. "There is the energy we need to make it happen," Wright said. "We just want to make sure we think it through and do it right."

Strickland, 62, grew up in Pittsburgh's poor Manchester neighborhood and, at age 16, had his life changed by a high-school ceramics teacher. The transformative power of art led him to start the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, an after-school arts program for youth, while he was still 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.

Strickland, the winner of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award, hopes to build 200 similar centers around the world, and he already has helped create more than a dozen, including one in Cincinnati.

His focus is on using art to inspire poor kids to develop their talents, as well as to help unemployed adults learn job skills that local employers need. Like Manchester Bidwell, Strickland's spinoff facilities are distinguished by first-class architecture, equipment and instruction.

"Environment and the way we treat people shapes behavior," Strickland said in his remarks to the Kentucky group. "If you build world-class buildings, you get world-class outcomes. If you build prisons you get prisoners."

Silberman said he must meet with the school board to see whether this is the direction they want to take. But he said Manchester Bidwell's proven model would seem like a perfect fit for their goals of helping at-risk kids and raising graduation rates by creating a vocational training center focused on agriculture science, equine and pre-veterinary studies.

"It's definitely worth exploring," said Becky Sagan, the school board chairman, who is also on the trip. "We're definitely at the right point. We have the funding, the land, the focus. (Strickland) has the program. We'll see how well they go together."

Timing could be critical. Silberman said the school system "is poised to do it right now."

But Strickland's usual approach is more deliberate. His non-profit organization usually conducts a feasibility study with an interested community, identifies and recruits local leaders and business partners and acts as a consultant over five years.

All centers are locally owned and run, and each is adapted to the needs of local public schools and the workforce requirements of local employers. A key ingredient is passionate, local leadership — people in each community who believe, as Strickland does, that poor people can become productive members of society if given training and respect.

One point of discussion will be location — or locations — for a Lexington center's programs. The school system is committed to the 82-acre rural property. But Wright said the city is interested in using such a center, or portions of it, to help revitalize urban areas where many of the students would likely live.

Strickland, when asked by Silberman and Wright about the location issue, said he is flexible. "The issue is what happens inside the building, not where it's located," he said. "My place is in an industrial park."

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