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Gay SF Parks Alliance CEO Marks First Year

by Matthew S. Bajko

San Francisco Parks Alliance CEO Drew Becher. Photo: Kelly Sullivan
San Francisco Parks Alliance CEO Drew Becher. Photo: Kelly Sullivan  

Since moving to San Francisco nearly three years ago, San Francisco Parks Alliance CEO Drew Becher has noticed that its residents have a relationship to the city's parks and open spaces unlike anything he has witnessed in the other metro areas he has lived. The closest example, he said, may be how New Yorkers embrace their city's Central Park and other outdoor recreational areas.

"There is a rich history here of things happening in the parks, whether it is Golden Gate Park or the Civic Center," said Becher, 48, who lives on Telegraph Hill with his husband, Eric Lochner. "The parks have always been important to the DNA here of the LGBT community in San Francisco. The parks have always been accepting and open to everyone. They are where people can be themselves and do what they want."

Apart from the longer period of warm weather found here, Becher surmised more people in San Francisco are picnicking in and utilizing the city's parks due to the lack of bugs.

"Getting a blanket and going out for a picnic that just doesn't happen to the extent it happens here," said Becher, who has grown a particular fondness for John McLaren Park bordering the city's southeastern neighborhoods. "It is one of those places that is so close but you feel 10 million miles away."

Becher recently met up with the Bay Area Reporter at Patricia's Green in Hayes Valley to talk about his first year overseeing the city's main advocacy group for parks and open spaces.

"This is not a bad way to start a morning," remarked Becher, who joined the nonprofit last March.

He replaced interim CEO Rachel Norton, who had been running the organization following the departure of gay former CEO Matthew O'Grady. Norton is now executive director of the California State Parks Foundation.

For the past two decades Becher has worked on national and regional park planning, advocacy, and philanthropy. He led the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society as its president and CEO and was previously the executive director of the New York Restoration Project.

He and Lochner moved to the West Coast from Philadelphia due to Lochner being hired as CEO of STEELE CIS, an online compliance company. Prior to being hired by the parks alliance Becher worked as a real estate agent.

The nonprofit is the leading advocate at City Hall for funding of the city's numerous parks and recreation facilities. It also partners with scores of community groups that have adopted various city parks to serve as stewards of the sites.

To better meet the needs of the more than 200 groups the Parks Alliance fiscally sponsors, Becher reorganized the agency's staff so it is focused on four distinct quadrants of the city. Rather than have the staff working on different programs, they are now tasked with assisting the outside groups located in their part of town.

"They are the mini-mayors of those areas," explained Becher, who is overseeing the development of a three-year strategic plan for the Parks Alliance.

His first anniversary in the job coincides with the nonprofit launching the inaugural Parks, Cities and People Breakfast Tuesday, March 6. The sold out fundraiser will bring together local leaders, including San Francisco Recreation and Park general manager Phil Ginsburg and Warriors Chase Arena Executive Director Eric Bresler, to discuss how parks impact the way people interact with urban environments.

The event is in addition to the group's annual Party for the Parks that raises money for its $28 million initiative to upgrade the city's playgrounds. Becher said he wanted to hold a second event that was more focused on policy issues where the topics could be changed each year.

"Open space has a great impact on people," he said.

The Parks Alliance is also planning to host a mayoral candidate forum in April to quiz the contenders for Room 200 in City Hall on their stands toward parks, open spaces, and environmental issues. Depending on who wins the special election on the June 5 primary ballot, they could be looking to hire a new person to oversee the city's rec and park department.

It is a job Becher told the B.A.R. he has no interest in, adding that Ginsburg "has done a Herculean job" overseeing the city agency.

"I am happy where I am. I like the idea of bringing philanthropy to further the vision of not only rec and park but also the port commission, the public works department and any city agency focused on open space," said Becher.

To learn more about the San Francisco Parks Alliance and its programs, visit http://www.sfparksalliance.org/.

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