Pittsburgh’s Strickland inspires Lexington efforts

May 5, 2010

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 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 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 youth 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 both liberals and conservatives, 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: that 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 may 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, as well as 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 individuals with the vision 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.”

Trying to turn Creative Cities ideas into action

April 18, 2010

The Creative Cities Summit a week ago generated a lot of energy. But it was nothing compared to what I felt Saturday at an all-day session called Now What, Lexington?

Perhaps that’s because this gathering was about putting the ideas, inspirations and passion generated by the Creative Cities Summit into specific ideas and plans for improving Lexington.

For starters, it was remarkable that nearly 200 people would spend at least part of a picture-perfect spring Saturday inside the Carnegie Center talking, when they could just as easily have been at Keeneland or a half-dozen other community events.

Several city officials and candidates were there, as well as a legislator and several technology entrepreneurs and community activists. A few University of Kentucky students came, saying they hope to make Lexington their permanent home.

The crowd ranged in age from 20-something to 70-something. It skewed young, though — an encouraging mosaic of faces that represent Lexington’s emerging leadership.

Now What, Lexington? was organized by a new civic group called Progress Lex. The free “unconference,” underwritten by local business sponsors, provided a forum for anyone to propose a topic and gather a group to discuss it. The only requirement was that the 30 or so breakout sessions conclude with action steps. Detailed notes from the sessions will soon be posted at: www.nowwhatlexington.org.

In the sessions I attended, there was remarkably little grousing about what’s wrong with Lexington and a lot of talk about the city’s potential.

A common theme was the importance of a well-designed downtown, from good architecture to the elimination of one-way streets. The CentrePointe fiasco prompted several discussions about the need for design guidelines for new downtown development and a review panel with design professionals that is insulated from politics.

Several people noted that whatever is built on the now-vacant CentrePointe block will shape Lexington and its image for a century or more. “If we mess this up, Lexington has lost a great opportunity,” dentist Wes Coffman said.

Phil Holoubek, a downtown developer and strong advocate for design guidelines, said Lexington must plan for and invest in infrastructure to make sure downtown is developed appropriately. He urged citizens to demand that CVS design the pharmacy it plans to build on a downtown site he partially owns so it fits in with the urban landscape. “It’s very good for downtown to have CVS, but I don’t have any control over what it will look like,” he said.

Other discussions were focused on job creation, economic development, high-tech entrepreneurship and environmental sustainability. There were ideas for retaining bright young people, as well as engaging senior citizens, who will make up an increasingly large percentage of the population over the next two decades. Lisa Adkins, director of the Bluegrass Community Foundation, led a session on this question: “What if every child in Lexington had a mentor?”

Plans were made for using technology to better connect citizens and identify and share resources.

“There’s no need to re-invent the wheel,” said Rebecca Self, education director for the community garden organization Seedleaf. “A lot of these things are being done in Lexington already; we just have to put them together.”

There was talk about how to create the infrastructure for a stronger local food economy — one that benefits low-income residents as well as the people who can afford to shop at the Lexington Farmers Market, which two blocks away was enjoying its first Saturday in the new Cheapside market house.

Anthony Wright, the city’s economic development director, actively participated in a group that discussed how Lexington could replicate the model for arts-inspired youth education and job training for poor people pioneered in Pittsburgh by Bill Strickland, who was a speaker at the Creative Cities Summit.

Participants in many of the groups talked about economic shifts that are radically changing community development models. “We’re in a new age with new forms of collaboration,” said Sherry Maddock, who started the London Ferrill Community Garden on East Third Street. “Government is a partner, but it’s not about government doing everything.”

“It has really been energizing,” entrepreneur Griffin Van Meter said during the wrap-up session. “It really emphasizes why Lexington is such a great city.”

And why it can become even better.

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Creative Cities Summit: Good talk, now for action

April 10, 2010

Downtown developer Phil Holoubek and other locals who organized the Creative Cities Summit last week had three main goals.

They wanted to have out-of-towners feel Lexington’s creative buzz. They wanted to expose Lexington’s leadership to new ideas. And they wanted to show more of their neighbors the economic and social vitality Lexington could achieve through greater creativity and broader community engagement.

About half the 570 people who paid $199 to attend the summit Wednesday through Friday were not from Lexington, and the ones I talked with were clearly impressed. They loved the friendly people, the beauty of springtime in the Bluegrass and the handsome Lexington Center facility, where every time they walked into the lobby they saw a curving glass wall with a panoramic view of downtown.

But they also were wowed by Lexington’s creativity: the special installations by artists; the presentations by technology entrepreneurs and poets; and performances by such local talent as the dancers from Mecca Studio, guitarist Tee Dee Young and the wacky March Madness Marching Band.

And I’ll bet many of the Lexingtonians who attended the summit were seeing most of this local talent for the first time, too.

The summit’s speakers were impressive, beginning with Lexington’s own Ben Self, the technology entrepreneur who helped create President Barack Obama’s online campaign strategy. Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class and other best-selling books, was the highest-paid speaker — the headliner to get people in the door. But I found many of the other presenters to be more thought-provoking and inspiring.

Rebecca Ryan, a Madison, Wis., consultant who has been working with Commerce Lexington on strategies for attracting and retaining young professionals, was one of several who stressed the importance of diversity and inclusion to economic success. “If you want to retain people, you give them a place at the table and real work to do,” she said.

Tonya Surman talked passionately about the Center for Social Innovation she started in Toronto. She is working with the Kentucky Conference for Community and Justice to create a similar facility in Lexington, to be called The Plantory, where fledgling do-gooder organizations can share office space and feed off each other’s ideas.

The real show-stopper was Bill Strickland, author of Making the Impossible Possible and founder and CEO of the Manchester Bidwell Corp., a wildly successful job training and community arts program for poor people in Pittsburgh. Commerce Lexington will visit Manchester Bidwell on its annual trip next month.

What made Strickland so inspiring was his message that poor people, who are often treated as society’s liabilities, can become productive assets. His formula is a no-nonsense combination of hard work, striving for excellence and treating each person with respect.

Charles Landry, author of The Art of City Making, delivered a powerful message about the importance of beauty in city design — and the economic and social costs of ugliness.

“Think of the city as a living work of art,” said Landry, noting that cities Lexington’s size are often in the best position to innovate and succeed. “They’re small enough to make it happen and large enough to be taken seriously.”

Landry warned that cities that already have a good quality of life can easily become complacent and fall behind economically. “People who look too beautiful often have problems because they don’t try hard enough,” he said.

And if that didn’t hit home, the Englishman added this: “People say about Lexington that they talk a lot and don’t do a lot.”

Landry isn’t the first to make that observation, and it is the reason that Progress Lex, a new civic group, has organized a follow-up session Saturday at the Carnegie Center downtown. It is called Now What Lexington? and is free and open to the public. The session is designed to give people a forum to harness creative ideas and make plans to act on them. (Register at: www.nowwhatlexington.org.)

I spent my first 18 years, and the past dozen, living in Lexington. I can honestly say I have never seen more creativity and energy in this city than I have the past five or six years. For example, downtown is well on its way to transformation. Authentic local arts and culture have blossomed. And the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games will soon help take Lexington to a whole new level.

Hosting the Creative Cities Summit was a reflection of the change happening in Lexington. But the summit will have been worthwhile only if it inspires people throughout this city to get more creative and put the talk into action.

At the CCS: Shelling out for creativity

April 9, 2010

A few minutes after I took this photo of speakers Charles Landry, right, and Rebecca Ryan, left, talking with attendees at the Creative Cities Summit today in Lexington, creativity paid off.

Lori Houlihan, drum major of Lexington’s March Madness Marching Band, asked Landry for advice on how the wacky community band could raise some money to cover expenses without damaging the group’s all-volunteer spirit.

The band had been the first of several Lexington musicians and groups to entertain at the conference. At the end of the opening reception Wednesday evening, as everyone was chatting, the ballroom doors swung open and the band marched into the lobby, started playing and led everyone in for dinner. Landry was so startled, he spilled his drink.

So when Houlihan asked Landry today for fund-raising advice, she said he reached for his wallet and handed her a $20 bill. “Then other people around us just started handing me money,” she said. “I got about $80 for the band.”

At Creative Cities Summit: What’s Pecha Kucha?

April 8, 2010

Nathan Cryder, left, and Griffin Van Meter do a Pecha Kucha at the Creative Cities Summit today. Pecha Kucha — Japanese for “the sound of people talking” — is a rapid-fire presentation that includes 20 PowerPoint slides for 20 seconds each, and perhaps other props, too.  That means presenting an idea in 6 minutes and 40 seconds. No more, no less. Cryder and Van Meter and several other Lexingtonians used the technique to make presentations about their ideas for improving Lexington. Photo by Tom Eblen

Watch KET in coming weeks for CCS interviews

April 8, 2010

Bill Goodman of Kentucky Educational Television interviews Jeremy Gutsche, founder of TrendHunter.com and one of the speakers at the Creative Cities Summit in Lexington this week.  Goodman also interviewed speakers Rebecca Ryan of Next Generation Consulting; Ben Self of Lexington, a founding partner of Blue State Digital; and Charles Landry, author of The Art of City Making. The interviews will be shown in coming weeks on Goodman’s One to One show on KET.  Also, KET’s Renee Shaw will interview speaker Bill Strickland, founder of Pittsburgh’s Manchester Bidwell Corp. for her show Connections.  The schedules haven’t been set, but check back soon on www.ket.org.

Richard Florida’s creativity class at CCS

April 8, 2010

Richard Florida, who opened the Creative Cities Summit in Lexington last night, is one of those pop-culture social scientists people either love or hate. His “creative class” books have been widely praised and criticized. He is a dynamic speaker who commands speaking fees others can only dream about. His new book, The Great Reset, which will be out later this month, talks about how the economic recession will reshape society.

Conferences like CCS aren’t about people, they’re about ideas. Love Florida or hate him, he had some interesting ideas and observations. Here are a few I took away from his talk:

  • “We have to figure out ways to give people meaning. It doesn’t come from buying things. It comes from having purpose in your life.”
  • We now have a knowledge economy, but what binds people together isn’t knowledge but “social relationships” and human creativity.
  • “No longer can you have economic development without human development.”
  • Building the economy will require tapping the creativity of everyone. He cited Toyota in Georgetown as an example of a company that has tried to tap the innovation and creativity of average employees.
  • Companies don’t create wealth. Wealth and innovation are created by people coming together in communities.
  • “Creativity is the social leveler. That’s why diversity is so important. Creativity requires diversity. That’s why the communities that are tolerant and inclusive win.” The keys to success for cities in the future: Technology, Talent and Tolerance.

Florida said that 60 percent of jobs in America are now in service industries. To improve the economy, the nation must figure out how to elevate service jobs the way manufacturing jobs were elevated after the Great Depression.  He didn’t say how that could be done, so I’ll be interested to read The Great Reset to see what he suggests.

March Madness Marching Band opens CCS

April 7, 2010

What better group to open the Creative Cities Summit tonight than Lexington’s March Madness Marching Band?

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Cool art installation at Creative Cities Summit

April 7, 2010

Take a look at this cool art installation, which has been put up in Lexington Center for the three days of the Creative Cities Summit.

Called “Big Pink,” it is an undulating wall surface fabricated from hundreds of hand-cut pieces of pink insulation.  Curving apertures bend light coming in from the window where the installation is mounted.

In the closeup photo, historic St. Paul’s Catholic Church on Short Street is framed in the large aperture.

The installation is the work of Liz Swanson and Mike McKay, architecture professors at the University of Kentucky’s College of Design.

Creative Cities Summit begins with youth appeal

April 7, 2010

The three-day Creative Cities Summit began in Lexington today with tours of horse farms and bourbon distilleries for out-of-towners and appeals to Kentucky’s young professionals to stay here — or, if they want to move away, to come home after a few years.

About 100 young professionals attended the conference’s preview session.  Judy “J.J.” Jackson, the vice president for institutional diversity at the University of Kentucky, said she has lived around the country and has been to 22 other nations. Jackson said she moved to Lexington two years ago from a deanship at Vassar College because this is where she wanted to live. But she said it may take living elsewhere for some young Kentuckians to appreciate Lexington.

Nine others, including Mayor Jim Newberry, highlighted reasons that young professionals should stay in Lexington. Those included everything from downtown improvements to environmental sustainability efforts and bike trails. Urban County Councilman Jay McChord said Lexington is the kind of place where an individual can make a difference, and “this is the best time to ever have lived in Lexington, Kentucky. Ever.”

The discussion included a couple of news items:

Developer Phil Holoubek, one of the founders of Lexington’s Yellow Bikes, said the city has secured a federal grant to take the downtown public bike-sharing program to the next level. The grant will pay for new bikes and a system of automated checkout kiosks — a big improvement over previous systems, which have either been too easy to use (resulting in lost and stolen bikes) or two difficult (resulting in little use). One such system is made by B-Cycle (www.bcycle.com).

Newberry announced that Bicycling Magazine just named Lexington the 41st most bicycle-friendly city in the nation. It’s the first time Lexington has cracked the magazine’s top-50 list. Louisville also is on the list, at No. 21.

Newberry also mentioned other city efforts to improve local quality of life. “All of this is designed to create the kind of environment that will create economic development in the future,” he said. “The up-side potential of this community is nothing less than remarkable.”

The Creative Cities Summit isn’t specifically about Lexington — it is focused on what all cities can do to become more successful. But Anthony Wright, Lexington’s economic development director, said hosting the summit will raise Lexington’s national profile. “We think it will create a new group of ambassadors for Lexington,” he said.

The Summit’s formal program gets under way this evening with speeches by “creative class” author Richard Florida and Ben Self, a Lexington technology entrepreneur who helped start the company that managed President Barack Obama’s campaign Web strategy. For more information, go to: www.creativecitieslexington.com.

Return here tonight for an update on what Self and Florida had to say.

Now What, Lexington? Figure it out April 17

March 2, 2010

Want to explore the latest ideas for making cities successful? Plan to attend the Creative Cities Summit in Lexington, April 7-9.

Want to discuss how those ideas could be applied to Lexington? Mark April 17 on your calendar.

That’s when a companion session called Now What, Lexington? will be held at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

Unlike the Creative Cities Summit, there are no big-name speakers and no admission charge. Everyone is welcome to attend — or to lead a session, if they wish, on any topic that interests others enough to participate.

Now What, Lexington? isn’t a conference; it’s an “un-conference,” said Ben Self, a Lexington technology entrepreneur who is helping to organize the event. To sign up, go to www.nowwhatlexington.org.

“Our goal is to take the excitement, ideas and momentum from the Creative Cities Summit and spark some action from it,” Self said.

There is no agenda for Now What, Lexington?, just five or six rooms available for breakout discussions during seven 45-minute blocks between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. The only request of session leaders is that the groups discuss action steps, not just ideas.

For example, Self wants to lead a discussion on what citizens and neighborhoods could do to self-organize and take up some of the slack of cuts — and possible future cuts — in city government services.

Now What, Lexington? is being organized by a new group called ProgressLex, which hopes to advocate for a variety of urban Lexington issues the way The Fayette Alliance does for land-use issues, said the group’s chairman, Dan Rowland, a University of Kentucky history professor.

Rowland said Lexington has many organizations that do good work, and ProgressLex hopes to bring them together to be more effective. He envisions a bipartisan online community of as many as 30,000 people focusing on issues ranging from good urban design and historic preservation to ­social justice and government transparency.

He said Now What, Lexington? seemed like the perfect launch event for ProgressLex, because it is focused on putting new ideas into action to improve Lexington’s quality of life.

Phil Holoubek, a downtown developer who is one of the main organizers of the Creative Cities Summit, said Now What, Lexington? is a perfect companion event. That’s because the summit is aimed toward ideas for cities generally — and attracting attention to Lexington as a place where good ideas are discussed. Now What, Lexington? could help get some of those ideas put into action.

“We really need both types of events to move ­Lexington forward,” ­Holoubek said.

This two-step approach — gathering ideas, then discussing an action plan for Lexington — offers a good model for Commerce Lexington’s annual Leadership Visit.

Each May, more than 200 local business and civic leaders spend three days together in another city, networking and gathering ideas to bring home to Lexington. This year’s trip, to Pittsburgh, promises to be one of the most useful of these visits, because it is being taken with Greater Louisville Inc.

Kentucky’s two largest cities need a closer working relationship, and this is a good step in that direction.

Although past ­Commerce Lexington trips have eventually led to some action in Lexington, a frequent criticism is that more could be done. In a letter to the editor recently, former Urban County Council member Dick DeCamp suggested that Commerce Lexington’s trips be scaled back to every two or three years, with time in between devoted to meetings focused on applying ideas already gathered.

That’s a sensible approach. At the least, Commerce Lexington could take a cue from the Creative Cities Summit and Now What, Lexington? and schedule public follow-up sessions after the Pittsburgh trip. Those sessions would be good places to discuss how ideas generated in Pittsburgh — and relationships made with Louisvillians — could be put to good use.

Speaking of ideas: One of America’s most successful mayors — Joseph P. Riley Jr. of Charleston, S.C. — speaks Wednesday at 6 p.m. in the Downtown Public Library. Riley, Charleston’s mayor since 1975, has been a key player in growing the city’s economy while preserving its historic buildings and decreasing crime. The free program is sponsored by The Fayette Alliance and UK’s Gaines Center for the Humanities.