Editor’s Note: This is the first of several stories about the future of the Santa Monica Pier.
Jim Harris is as much a fixture of the Santa Monica Pier as the horses in the Hippodrome or the seagulls stealing fries. With more than 30 years of experience, he’s recently been tapped for a second tour of duty as Interim Executive Director. However, this is not like a trip around the carousel because for his second ride, the job, budget and very philosophy of government are all radically different.
Former Executive Director Negin Singh resigned in April after about three years in the role. At the time, she said the needs of the Pier no longer aligned with her skills in event planning. Harris took over this month.
Pier Corporation Chair Chris Foster said Harris’ experience covers literally every aspect of the Pier and that he is the only person capable of handling the current situation.
“He literally wrote the book about the Pier,” he said. “Jim is tasked with a daunting project. To basically rebuild the entire Pier Corporation for the different environment that we’re currently in. He’s basically starting from scratch. He has to rebuild with a smaller budget, you know, and creating more of those relationships, you have to rebuild those relationships, it’s quite a big task.”
Harris said his first stint in the ED chair was truly temporary while the Pier Corporation searched for a full-time replacement but this time, the job itself is interim as stakeholders are reconsidering the fundamental governance structure of the iconic location.
“I can tell you from my almost 32 years on the Pier, certainly the governance of the Pier has been problematic,” he said. “And over the past year that’s really been dramatically heightened. It’s confusing. It’s confusing because the city has their responsibilities here on the Pier, the Pier Corporation has a role and the tenants have certainly had a lot of concerns and want a bigger voice, and understandably so.”
The Pier itself is City property and is akin to a public park. However, management of leases for businesses and programming responsibilities fall to the Pier Corporation, a standalone non-profit whose board is appointed by City Council.
“It’s always been confusing as to whose responsibility is what and really where does the buck stop? And so we’re really focusing on the governance right now, it appears that we’re going to have a different structure moving forward and what that’s going to be has yet to be determined,” he said. “So, for an executive director to step in right now, it would have to be on an interim basis, because we don’t know what it will be in a year or 15 months from now. And that excites me because, as I said, I’ve been here almost 32 years and seen the difficulties and the issues that have arisen from the confusing governance structure, and I’m eager to be a part of making things work better and hopefully right.”
Harris said he could imagine the Pier governance transitioning to something like Business Improvement District that had a strong central figure with authority to oversee the differing aspects of Pier culture.
Discussions of reorganization come as the Pier has had its budget slashed by more than two-thirds. All Pier-sponsored programs were eliminated last year and the staff was dramatically reduced but Harris said he’s going to be looking at small steps to rebuild Pier operations.
Several staff members have been rehired as the Pier has been allowed to reopen and he said he is working on some budget-friendly programs that cost very little but will make the Pier feel more like a community hangout again.
“We’re going to be putting a lot of attention into bringing the locals to the Pier and giving them the incentive to do so,” he said. “Probably with something like a locals night, happy hours, reaching out to schools to decorate our windows in the merry-go-round. Keep keeping things that they’re low budget items but very impactful for the local community and really getting the citizens of Santa Monica to come spend some time on this pier that technically they own.”