Bill Strickland: Flower Power

By Charlie Nardozzi

Bill Strickland

Growing up in the impoverished Manchester section of Pittsburgh, Bill Strickland was on the same course as many other young people in his neighborhood. He wasn't doing well in school and had no direction in his life. Then, Frank Ross, the Oliver High School art teacher, took him under his wing. He introduced Bill to pottery, art, and music, and started Bill on a new path -- one that would eventually lead him to college and a career as a successful entrepreneur.

After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, Bill was trying to decide what to do professionally. He thought back to how he was given a second chance by someone who cared, and he decided to dedicate his career to giving the same opportunities to youths in his old neighborhood. In 1968, while race riots were flaring around him, he started the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild -- a craft and visual arts training center for young adults. The guild has helped many students find a purpose, passion, and direction in their lives. Since it opened, 80 percent of those participating in the programs have gone on to college.

Soon after Bill started the guild he was asked to rejuvenate a vocational training facility -- Bidwell Training Center -- in the same neighborhood. Again, after students finished studying programs in culinary arts, computer science, and industrial chemistry, 75 percent of them were placed in jobs in their field of study.

While the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and Bidwell Training Center have started additional successful programs in music, medical technology, community development, and executive training, Bill has turned his attention to another love: flowers.

Orchid Passion

About 15 years ago Bill started growing annual flowers in his yard. His fascination with flowers really sprouted when a friend gave him an orchid. He was hooked. He bought a book on orchids and started growing the plants in his basement. Seeing the beauty of the flower and realizing the opportunity of using the same model as the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, Bill started researching what it would take to set up a commercial orchid-growing facility in Pittsburgh to support a horticultural education center. The education center would teach young adults how to care for orchids and train them to work in the horticulture industry. After visiting orchid growers across the country, talking with university experts, and raising almost 5 million dollars, the Drew Mathieson Center for Horticultural and Agricultural Technology opened its doors last fall (2003) to its first class and first year of orchid production.

The 40,000-square-foot orchid greenhouse produced 20,000 plants the first year with the help of four greenhouse assistants, one professional grower, and a marketer. The orchids are sold wholesale to local supermarkets and retail florists. Proceeds from the orchid sales support the horticultural training program. This year 20 students are in the program, learning about orchid production and developing skills in greenhouse operations, interior plantscaping, agriculture, plant sciences, environmental technology and wholesale or retail floral sales. The facility is designed to eventually support 60,000 orchids a year and train 30 to 40 students a year.

Hydroponic Tomatoes

Buoyed by his success with orchids, Bill has now turned his attention to the possibility of turning vacant industrial sites in the Pittsburgh area into hydroponic tomato-production facilities. Modeled after the orchid facility, these greenhouses would provide fresh tomatoes for the Pittsburgh area, grown by students. The hydroponic tomato operation is still in the experimentation stage at the Drew Mathieson Center for Horticultural and Agricultural Technology, but Bill hopes that soon it will begin commercial production.

It's About the Kids

You'd think it would be easy to get lost in the operations of the vocational and visual arts programs and orchid and tomato production, but Bill has never forgotten the driving reason for all these enterprises. It's all about changing impoverished kids' lives, one at a time. "There's one young man who was a poor kid from the neighborhood. He started ceramics classes in 7th grade and got so turned on that he went to college, became a Fulbright Scholar, and now has a Ph.D.," says Bill.

The student's life was turned around, just like Bill's, because someone cared. These programs offer a ray of hope to hundreds of kids in the inner city.

For more information on the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and the Bidwell Training Center, go to their Web sites.

Photographs by Richard Kelly, Pittsburgh Magazine

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