SM PIER — The Santa Monica Pier is losing perhaps its most ardent booster.

Ben Franz-Knight, executive director of the Pier Restoration Corp., is leaving his post to become the leader of one of Seattle’s most popular tourist destinations, the historic Pike Place Market in the city’s central business district.

It’s “one of the few locations and few opportunities in the country that would get me to consider leaving the pier,” Franz-Knight, 37, said. “This has been one of the greatest opportunities in my life to date. There’s only one Santa Monica Pier and I’m proud to be a part of its history.”

The new position as executive director of the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority is both a chance to manage a larger tourist attraction and an opportunity to live close to extended family members in Seattle, he said.

“I’m really sad to see him go. This is a guy who, for the time that he’s been there, has lived and breathed and every day of his life loved the pier. He treats it as if it were part of his family,” said City Councilman Richard Bloom.

Added PRC Board Chairman Ken Smith: “It’s a testament to the work he’s done at the pier to have him have that great, great opportunity.”

Smith credited Franz-Knight with bringing vendors and attractions to the pier that have prompted local residents to embrace, rather than ignore, Santa Monica’s most famous tourist attraction.

Franz-Knight established a much-needed capital improvement program for the pier that has made the city a better steward of the historic landmark, Smith said, and also excelled at achieving consensus among PRC board members and other pier stakeholders.

“He has a passion for the pier and I think that’s what was the key ingredient for him to be successful, along with all the other skills he brought to the table,” Smith said.

Franz-Knight first started working at the pier as a temporary employee in 1999. He became acting director in 2002 and was appointed full-time PRC director in 2003.

A timetable for Franz-Knight’s departure has not been announced and there’s no plan yet for finding a replacement. Smith said the PRC board will discuss whether to appoint an interim executive director or immediately conduct a search for a permanent PRC leader at its next meeting Sept. 8.

“We want to get the best candidate we can get, wherever that person resides,” Smith said.

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