When Bob Becker looks out of his window he sees an elegant expanse of lush green fields, century-old oak trees and blue skies. Not a bad day at the office, some would say. But it’s all part of the package if the office is situated at City Park, where Becker serves as CEO over 1,500 acres of golf courses, driving ranges, tennis courts, stadiums, stables, gardens, amusements for children, party spaces and museums. For most New Orleanians, City Park is one of the major bonuses of living in the city, but for Becker the park is his daily mission. After his family, Becker considers the park his main focus, especially now.
“We are right in the middle of a new master plan for City Park,” Becker says. “Over the last couple of years about $15 million has been spent on various projects, but what we are doing now will determine a new direction for the park that will carry us into the year 2018, the 300th anniversary of the city. Mayor Ray Nagin has encouraged us to be visionary about this, and to be bold.”
So what innovations does Becker have in mind for the park that attracts about 11 million visitors each year? He is necessarily tight-lipped about the particulars, but quick to point out that this is the first major plan for City Park since the 1930s, when the impetus was the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Depression relief initiative. “A lot of what you see today in the park is the vision of the people from the 1920s,” Becker says, “but the park has changed dramatically over the years. Our goal now is to determine what the citizens want and to give it to them.”
Becker is probably the ideal person for the job, based on his background and training. Prior to accepting his current post, he was a senior vice-president and managing director at Audubon Nature Institute (which includes the Audubon Zoo and Aquarium of the Americas), following a stint in charge of planning and operations. Six years as executive director of the New Orleans City Plan-ning Commission prepared him for the post, as did his master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the Univers-ity of Iowa. Today Becker is hard at work on a Ph.D in urban planning from the University of New Orleans, where he also teaches in the College of Urban and Public Affairs.
His is a mighty resume, to be sure, and his job could be an all-encompassing endeavor, but Becker says what really counts in his life is his family. Married to Patricia Becker, a teacher at John Quincy Adams Middle School in Jefferson Parish, the Beckers are parents of two married daughters who live in the Dallas area, and one son in graduate school at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Academic major? Urban planning, of course. Becker and his wife live in a two-story home in Lake Vista.
Becker, who has found a respectable balance of work and family life is about one year away from finishing his doctor-ate. His dissertation focuses on a new community being built on the island of New Guinea by the Freeport McMoran Co. “My time is pretty well taken up, as you can imagine,” he says, “between visiting my children, my work with the park, teaching, and working toward my doctorate. But I never lose sight of what a huge part of my life the park is. There are so many things going on here all the time, and I try to keep my hand in them all the time, in terms of talking to people who come here and being aware of what is happening.”
In between it all, Becker has traveled to some rather exotic locales, including a trip to Africa when he worked for the Audubon Zoo, and a journey to Indonesia during his years at UNO. “Recently I went to the New Millennium Park in Chicago, which was an eye-opening experience,” Becker says. “It’s interesting to know how City Park compares with other parks, such as Forest Park in St. Louis, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, or Central Park in New York City. This park is comparable to the activities, size and visitation of those parks.”
The constant challenge for Becker, and what really separates City Park from its urban counterparts is funding. “The dram-atic difference between those parks and us is that all of those parks are supported by the public and City Park has no public support for its expenses. All funds here are self-generated, except for construction funding from the city.”
Meanwhile, Becker and his staff of about 140 full- and part-time employees keep the action running—from golf tournaments, homecoming games, softball games and wedding receptions to the neverending crowds of visitors to the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, the New Orleans Botanical Garden, New Orleans Museum of Art and this month’s annual unveiling of Celebration in the Oaks.
What’s on the horizon? “By the end of the year or the first quarter of next year we’ll have a big new proposal for the park and we’ll be seeking public reaction to it,” Becker says. If what is coming is on the scale of Becker’s previous accomplishments through-out the City of New Orleans, it should be well worth waiting for. Stay tuned. ˆ