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Executive Director of the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corp. Ben Franz-Knight (center) talks with Kathleen Rawson of the Bayside District Corp. (right) during his goodbye celebrating at the Carousel Building on the world-famous Santa Monica Pier on Wednesday night. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SM PIER — After eight years as head of the Santa Monica Pier, Ben Franz-Knight today will be turning in the keys to his ocean-view office above the historic carousel.

Unknown to the millions of visitors who come to the pier each year, Franz-Knight has become something of a behind-the-scenes hero to pier boosters, who credit him with helping raise the popularity and profile of the 101 year-old international attraction.

“His creativity, problem-solving acumen and passion have made the pier a better place to visit, to work and to have as the anchor of our city,” Pier Restoration Corp. Board Chair Kent Smith said.

Smith said Franz-Knight has been instrumental in renewing the “spirit of community” on the pier by creating new events like 100th anniversary celebrations and improving existing events like the Twilight Dance Series.

“Without his steadfast determination we probably would have had to cancel much of our popular Twilight Dance Series concerts this past summer when the recession threatened sponsorship funding,” Smith said.

Franz-Knight, who came to the pier 11 years ago as a “temp” office administrator, is moving back to his native Washington to become head of Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market.

His selection for the prestigious job in Seattle, overseeing a much larger organization than he leaves in Santa Monica, is seen by many on the pier as a testament to Franz-Knight’s creativity and success, PRC Vice Chair Joel Brand said.

Since 2002, the pier has seen an expanded calendar of community events, in addition to a long list of capital improvement projects. Bubba Gump Shrimp opened in 2005, the pier has new public restrooms ranked top-10 in the nation and a recently opened old-fashioned soda fountain now calls the carousel building home.

Merchants on the pier credit Franz-Knight with helping make the landmark a better attraction, and a better place to do business.

“Ben was always available in a moment’s notice for the tenants. He is just one of the greatest guys that we have ever had down at the pier,” said Chris Volaski, president of the Santa Monica Pier Lessees Association.

Also during the Franz-Knight years, the pier has played a central role in large-scale events like Ashes and Snow, Cirque du Soleil, the inaugural Glow and the pier centennial.

“Ben’s leadership and vision brought together the pier’s historic Centennial celebration, including our first fireworks spectacular in 14 years,” Brand said. “Ben has a achieved great things for the pier and for Santa Monica and he will be sorely missed.”

The PRC hired a national executive search firm to recruit a permanent replacement for Franz-Knight, a process that is expected to take at least four months. In the meantime, the pier board has named Steve Gibson of Urban Place Consulting as interim executive director. Gibson, who is not a candidate for the permanent position, is a nationally recognized specialist in leading downtown associations and business improvement districts during transitions.

“Ben will be hard to replace, but he leaves the pier in great shape, having elevated it to a new level,” Smith said. “We fully expect his legacy to be reflected in the quality of candidates who seek to lead the pier forward.”

For Franz-Knight, it’s a bittersweet farewell.

“I have spent the majority of my professional life on the pier and it will be very hard to walk on the wooden deck boards for my last time as executive director. The pier has become a second home to me and the visitors and employees a second family,” he said. “Both of my kids were born in Santa Monica and the pier will always have a special place in our hearts. We’re looking forward to coming back as guests.”

nickt@smdp.com