William Strickland Jr. doesnt look for attention. He doesnt want attention. But its hard to ignore the fact that, while other nonprofit organizations study the regions economic development efforts and overanalyze, Strickland just does it, one underprivileged person at a time.
Strickland is founder and president of the nonprofit Bidwell Training Center and the Manchester Craftsmans Guild, programs designed to develop self esteem and work skills in kids and unemployed adults. Through his entrepreneurial nature and creativity, his programs are solving the regions economic woes quietly but profoundlywithout a bunch of studies.
We dont have a task force or study group, Strickland says with the understated, no-nonsense candor that makes him the doer that he is. We just go out and work with companies and people. This is a center that helps people. We dont need any more damned studies.
Sticklands passion grew out of his desire to restore the blighted Manchester section of Pittsburghs North Sidethe neighborhood he grew up into its former glory. To do that, he says, you need to make people feel better about themselves and train them to lead productive and profitable lives.
Strickland created the Manchester Craftsmans Guild more than 30 years ago to use the arts to teach self esteem and responsibility to at-risk teen-agers. That stems from his own childhood, when he faced the uncertainties of growing up in Manchester. An art teacher at Oliver High School took the time to teach Strickland the art of potterya skill which gave him new hope for the future.
Today, Strickland says, the Guild offers a wide range of arts, including its nationally recognized jazz program, which produces concerts for some of the nations jazz greats and has its own music label. Between 75 and 80 percent of the students who pass through the Guilds doors go on to post graduate schooling, he says.
The Bidwell Training Center, meanwhile, works with a handful of local companies, including Bayer, Calgon Carbon Corp., Aristech, BASF, Mellon Bank and IBM, to create practical training courses in subjects that meet the needs of the companies. Of the many unemployed and homeless adults who take the courses, close to 80 percent consistently get jobs in those fieldsmany of them working for Bidwells corporate partners, Strickland says.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Stricklands economic development effort is that much of it is self funded. Strickland has long maintained an entrepreneurial spirit, which he says has been necessary to make up for dwindling government money available for such programs. His food service programs provide on-the-job training for a number of contracts that generate revenue for the programs. The Guild, through its live recordings of jazz artists who perform at the Guild auditorium, has produced a number of CDs under its label, with proceeds pumped back into the program.
This year, Strickland is in the process of building a 60,000-square-foot medical technology training facility. But he isnt stopping there.
He is leading an effort to transform a rundown 2.99-acre former shopping center along Chateau Street in Manchester into a large greenhouse complex and program that would train students in greenhouse horticulturespecifically, cultivating orchids and hydroponic gardening. Strickland says students would grow tomatoes and lettuce, to be sold to restaurants and other food service providers, with proceeds invested back into the program. The Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, which owned the site, has approved more than $1.5 million in grants and loans. The total cost is expected to climb to at least $8.3 million.
Strickland, who prefers the role of low profile doer, gained more national exposure than he ever expected when Fast Company magazine, in its September 1998 edition, featured him and the organizations he runs in an unusually long, 12-page spread with lots of photos and several sidebars.
With all of this, youd think Strickland was positioning himself for political office or another higher profile job ahead. But he says hes not budging from his lifes work.
Im from this neighborhood, and I want to improve it and bring it back to its former glory, he says. Im committed to here, and I plan to spend the rest of my life here.