By Crystal Alofoje and Len Lear
During rough times, one major event in Philadelphia is still pumping millions of dollars into the region’s economy, according to the Chestnut Hill resident who is also president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. The 182nd Philadelphia International Flower Show, which ran March 6 to 13, provided folks with a quick getaway at the Philadelphia Convention Center. The theme of this year’s show was “Spring Time in Paris.”
“What we’re able to do here is focus on a country French garden with an American twist” said Drew Becher, 41, who lives near Morris Arboretum (appropriately) and who became president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society last June, replacing the retiring Jane Pepper, 65, who had become a virtual legend. During her tenure the society’s membership doubled to 16,000, and the staff grew by more than 70 people. Becher is the 36th president of PHS in its 187-year history.
Pepper retired after 25 years as the public face of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the Philadelphia Flower Show. Prior to Pepper, that position was held by Ernesta Ballard, another Chestnut Hill resident, feminist icon and legendary environmentalist. The Philadelphia Flower Show is visited by about 250,000 flower buffs annually, who help PHS raise part of its $20 million annual budget.
“The show brings in millions upon millions, although we do spend millions to put on the show. But it is our largest benefit,” said Becher. According to the Chestnut Hill resident, the economic impact of the Flower Show is phenomenal, taking in over $61 million this year and providing 637 jobs. Of the $61 million, more than $1.2 million will be spent on various PHS projects. The show also had more than 4,000 volunteers, making it the single largest show in the region annually.
“We couldn’t be happier. People come from all over the state, the country, the world,” said Becher, whose natural eye for class, beauty and originality was displayed in this year’s exhibits of flowers with a French twist. He worked closely with the show’s designer and several other supporters including the Convention Center, the Philadelphia Convention of Visitors Bureau and the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation. They introduced some new ideas into this year’s show, including the 33-foot-high base of an Eiffel Tower replica, the largest project the team has ever worked on.
The whole exhibit was built on four major components that PHS focused on, which included city harvest campaigning and parkway and public landscape unification.
Gardening and landscaping have always been Becher’s interests. “I think it was in my D.N.A for some reason. I got into weeding, landscaping. My parents never had to ask me to do that. For some kids, it was punishment.”
Prior to moving to our area, Becher lived in New York, where he served as the executive director of the New York Restoration Project, founded by singer Bette Midler. The organization was responsible for the planting of over 310,000 trees throughout New York City’s five boroughs. Becher was also instrumental in bringing environmental education programs to more than 10,000 children in underserved communities, but when the opportunity came to be the president of PHS, Becher could not possibly pass it up.
“These kinds of opportunities come twice in maybe 50 years,” he said. “At PHS, we are trying to push gardening and the popularity of gardening in new directions. We hope to be the trendsetter for the horticultural gardening world in this country. That’s what I want PHS to become. I love when people say, ‘Oh I can do that in my garden.’”
Becher, who was selected for his job out of more than 200 candidates, lives in his 85-year-old fieldstone home with his life-partner, Eric Lochner. Becher’s current salary is not being disclosed, but it is almost certainly more than the approximately $200,000 he was paid yearly in the New York post he left. Five years ago, while Becher and Lochner were living in a New York apartment, they purchased their current Chestnut Hill home as a weekend retreat. Now, of course, it is their full-time home.
The horticultural maven, who wants us all to think of parks as being just as essential to life as houses, is an Ohio native and lifelong nature lover. He founded a garden club in high school and while a student at the University of Cincinnati, he put together a report for the university president on how the appearance of the campus could be dramatically improved. The school administration eventually did implement many of the ideas Becher had suggested.
Becher is quick to point out that the Philadelphia region has more public gardens than any other urban area in the world — to name a small sampling, Morris Arboretum, Awbury Arboretum, Bartram Gardens, Longwood Gardens, Tyler Arboretum, the Azalea Gardens at the Art Museum of Philadelphia, etc., and of course, Fairmount Park, by far the biggest municipal park in the world.
Last Thursday Becher spoke to an audience of several hundred people during a tree conference at the Philadelphia Flower Show. He announced a new plan to plant up to one million trees in the Greater Philadelphia area, South Jersey and Delaware by the year 2020. To accomplish the daunting task, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society will work with local governments, community and neighborhood groups and schools to train thousands of volunteers.
Becher also hopes to raise millions of dollars from foundations, corporations and government to complete the effort.
For more information, call 215-988-8777 or visit www.pennsylvaniahorticulturalsociety.org.