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August 22, 2003
Jazz and Orchids Provide Inner City Hope and Opportunity
    by William Baue and Mark Thomsen

An interview with William Strickland, CEO of the not-for-profit Manchester Bidwell Corporation in Pittsburgh, reveals he is continuing to push the boundaries of inner city economic development.

The Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and the Bidwell Training Center, well-known community investment success stories in Pittsburgh, are overseen by the not-for-profit company Manchester Bidwell Corporation. Facilities run by the company include a jazz performance center and, as of January of this year, a $4 million greenhouse where young people can train for careers in horticulture.

William Strickland, the charismatic CEO of Manchester Bidwell, will soon realize his dream of replicating what he has built in Pittsburgh over the past 30 years. A similar organization with accompanying facilities is being created in San Francisco, and Mr. Strickland is serving as an advisor for San Francisco officials. Mr. Strickland is not resting on his laurels in Pittsburgh, however. recently spoke with Mr. Strickland about community investment and some of the new directions he is taking Manchester Bidwell. How can social investors support your community economic development activities?

Mr. Strickland: Well, obviously the availability of capital is useful, but business expertise is also vital. The ability to evaluate, consult, and advise regarding the development and implementation of business plans is an important resource that investors can offer the people we work with.

Manchester Bidwell and other organizations like us are in a position where we really need risk capital, if you will, either in the form of monetary capital or human capital. We need investors who are prepared to make an investment and are patient enough to allow that investment to appreciate in value before expecting a return. What are some examples of specific things or vehicles that you have that would fall under the community investment category?

Mr. Strickland: We are currently in the orchid business. We just built a one-acre 40,000 square foot facility, and we are selling orchids. What is the name of the business that is doing that?

Mr. Strickland: The Drew Mathieson Center. Who is benefiting from the orchid sales?

Mr. Strickland: Ultimately the sales will benefit the Bidwell Training Center. Since Manchester Bidwell Corporation is a not-for-profit, we decided to spin off the orchid business. The orchid business has a dual function: to train people for the industry, and to generate product that we will sell in the marketplace and generate revenue. Are there other examples of such businesses?

Mr. Strickland: Yes. We have started early planning on our hydroponic vegetable facility. We've just been given a planning grant to investigate the feasibility of growing cluster tomatoes, bell peppers, and cucumbers in Pittsburgh on an old steel mill site that has been remediated. We will probably enter the commercial retail food industry in a big way. We're having some serious conversations with Wal-Mart, for example. They've become quite interested in us. They want to talk to us about a national opportunity.

We're also having serious conversations with the Heinz Company about developing a line of new hybrid vegetable seeds. Obviously they have a significant research capability. We're talking with them about developing a new line of high-end, high-quality vegetables that would have mass appeal and be co-branded as Heinz Manchester Bidwell products. Is that through genetic modification or through standard hybridization?

Mr. Strickland: At this point it's standard hybridization. Another interesting business you have is a jazz label.

Mr. Strickland: Yes, that's another product. The label has won a Grammy, and we got nominated recently for a second Grammy. We are now looking for the right way to approach the marketplace and we need angel investors to help us capitalize on this opportunity.

But again, we're talking with Wal-Mart and they sell a lot of music. In fact, their conversation with us concerns three areas: jazz music, orchids, and food. This is on the front burner, not the back burner; it's in motion, and there are terrific opportunities in front of us. What kinds of financial returns do you think an investor in these initiatives might be able to make?

Mr. Strickland: Well, initially not a whole lot. I mean, the goal here is to break even in order to get this business up and running. But, we're talking in the five to ten percent net area, over time. Do you have a sense of a time horizon for that?

Mr. Strickland: Three to five years out. Aquaculture is a little further out than that. Aquaculture?

Mr. Strickland: Long term we're thinking about growing shrimp in tanks. In Pittsburgh?

Mr. Strickland: In Pittsburgh. Most people don't think of Pittsburgh as a shrimp capital.

Mr. Strickland: Well, most people don't think of Pittsburgh as an orchid capital either, but we are looking to change that. Stay tuned.


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