Nick Franco, 49, was superintendent of State Parks San Luis Obispo Coast District for more than 11 years. He retired from that post Jan. 23, and on Feb. 2, he began his next job: director of the county’s new and separate Parks and Recreation Department (it was formerly a division of the General Services Agency).
The state district stretches from Limekiln to Pismo Beach and encompasses 11 separate and distinctly different units, including Hearst Castle, often considered the parks jewel of the Central Coast, if not the entire state.
Franco is heading up a new, separate department of 55 employees with an annual budget of $10.5 million, and he has assumed the duties of the county’s retiring Interim Parks Director Curtis Black, along with some other responsibilities that go with forming a new department. Franco’s starting pay is $10,588 a month.
Praise and comments
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One of Franco’s new bosses, county Supervisor Bruce Gibson, has worked closely with the parks leader from the get-go and has high praise for his new employee. In fact, soon after the new hire was announced, Gibson exulted that it was “a fabulous opportunity, and we grabbed it.”
In an email interview later, Gibson said, “Nick’s been a great partner on many North Coast projects in recent years. With his energy and enthusiasm for the county’s mission, I’m sure we’ll see some great things happen with County Parks in the future. He really knows our communities and how to get things done.”
Brooke Gutierrez is Franco’s State Parks successor, at least until the superintendent position is filled permanently. She said in a Jan. 22 email that it’s unique to have the same district superintendent for 11 years.
“Working at SLO Coast was Nick’s career goal, so his passion for the parks, staff and visitors was apparent and infectious. … He knows park policy like it’s in his DNA, yet his creativity as a manager allowed him to keep State Parks moving in positive directions.”
Gutierrez said while she fills in, her “primary focus will be to keep the ship afloat until the position is permanently filled,” and that there’s no plan to backfill her current assignment as sector superintendent, as the “amazing team of supervisors and managers are chipping in to cover my duties” while she sits in Franco’s chair.
“I see my greatest challenge from a more personal angle … my daughter just turned 1, and coming home from work to a toddler makes my work challenges seem like a cake walk. She helps keep it all in perspective.”
Stephen Hearst, great-grandson of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, has also worked with Franco over the years and said in an email, “Nick has been nothing but a joy to work with. He pulled together the team that was there. He fit right in and was definitely the leader of the pack and the quarterback for the Castle and his other parks. He did everything he could for his position, the state and the people of California.”
Hearst said he hopes State Parks will give selecting Franco’s successor “the kind of thought it deserves,” because the choice will be quite important to Hearst Castle and the 82,000-acre Hearst Ranch.
“Remember,” Hearst said with a laugh, “they’ve only got one neighbor” at the Castle, and that’s the ranch that surrounds it.
Leaving State Parks
Departing employees often get an exit interview before they leave — a chance to say what they feel has been good and bad about their tenure.
This, then, is Franco’s “exit interview” with the California public he served for 31 years. His answers give insight to a long-term career tending State Parks, something he’s said he’s “very proud” to have done.
What will he miss most about not having an office at Hearst Castle?
“The views,” Franco said. “That is what you see in Mr. Hearst’s writings about building the Castle, and anyone who visits understands why. The views all around the San Simeon area are incredible, and from the hilltop, they are extraordinary.”
What he’ll miss least about State Parks, he said, is “dealing with the necessary and unnecessary bureaucratic processes relating to contracting, personnel and budgeting.”
During Franco’s San Luis Obispo Coast District tenure, he’s been a key cog in many collaborations involving communities, agencies and groups of dedicated parks employees or volunteers, and “that is what I am most proud of over the last 11 years: continuing and improving the collaboration of State Parks with many other people and organizations.”
“I don’t have a lot” of disappointments, Franco said, “but two that stand out are:
- “Not completing the acquisition of Wild Cherry Canyon as part of Montaña de Oro. This would have provided amazing public access opportunities into this truly rare coastal wilderness and would have been one of the premier features of the California Coastal Trail. So many people worked so hard to see that happen, and to have it fail due to lack of political will was very frustrating.
- “The ongoing lack of faith and support of the 'public-good aspect' of parks. When I started my career, 90 percent of the funding for State Parks came from the General Fund. Today, just a little over 20 percent does. … That means parks have become significantly a fee-based enterprise,” which potentially “prices out the general public from parks.” He said he hopes the public understands a “small investment in parks is part of the ‘good of government’ and is what helps make life here so worthwhile and fulfilling.”
- Plus, he added, “I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Lady Gaga … I am disappointed in how State Parks treated her efforts to support the Castle and its art.” Her video shoot “was a great opportunity that provided great benefits to the Castle and the county.” (The Neptune Pool statues are being restored because of Lady Gaga’s donation).
The entertainer’s involvement “could have produced more long-term benefits had we been able to manage that better within State Parks.”
Franco was put on involuntary leave for a couple of weeks following the Lady Gaga video shoot in February. State Parks never provided a reason for the action.
“I was so humbled by the overwhelming support I received locally and from my peers during the time off,” he said. “That was the most rewarding feeling I can imagine, and I can’t thank people enough for that.”
What’s on Franco’s immediate to-do list?
Completing restoration work on the Cayucos Pier, he said, “is an important current project that benefits so many people in the county and visitors to the area.”
Likewise, “completing and continuing trail connectivity projects is a critical element of the County Park responsibility.
“This includes the Bob Jones Trail, Morro Bay-to-Cayucos Connector, the Atascadero-to-Templeton Connector. I would also love to see a trail completed that completely circles Santa Margarita Lake.”
And getting a quality concessionaire onsite at Dairy Creek Golf Course “is very important and critical to its success. This first-of-its-kind zero-waste golf course should be a model for golf-course sustainability.”
Franco said the best piece of work-related advice he ever got, and one he’ll share with Gutierrez and his new County Parks compatriots, came from John Knott, a former State Parks Northern Division chief: “The park family exists, and you need to cherish and cultivate that. But it only exists in the park employees in the field, and it’s important to remember that.”
6 things you might not know
Six things you may not know about Franco:
1. Favorite moment at Hearst Castle?
Being “with many people when they visited the Castle for the first time. To hear their reactions and watch the amazed looks in their eyes are the similar moments that were my favorite.”
2. Scariest moment working for parks and at the Castle?
“A transient woman pointed a loaded, cocked gun at a sheriff’s deputy and me and wanted us to shoot her. After a long standoff trying to defuse the scene, the deputy and I were left with no choice.” They shot her in the thigh, treated and arrested her. She went to prison for assault with a deadly weapon on peace officers.
“At the Castle? Probably the San Simeon Earthquake and wondering if there were going to be any injuries to people or damage to the castle. Thankfully, no injuries and very little at the Castle (but sadly, death and injuries elsewhere in the county).”
3. What’s an automatic turn-off for you?
“Whining and complaining without trying to find solutions. We all have days and times we need to vent or complain, but those should be brief and followed by actions to change the circumstances or change our attitudes.”
“Gardening, reading, playing classical guitar, camping, hiking, traveling.”
5. Favorite exercise?
“Running. I love running.”
6. Favorite comfort food, preferably a forbidden one?
“Chocolate cheesecake. My wife makes the best one, and that’s what I ask for as my birthday cake every year.”
Collaboration a key to success
Among Franco’s favorite collaborative happenings in the 11½ years he has been superintendent of State Parks’ San Luis Obispo Coastal District:
- Adding 13 miles of coastline donated to Hearst San Simeon State Park as part of the Hearst Ranch Conservation Easement.
- Finally starting Hearst Castle roof- and pool-repair projects to protect the historic site.
- The tour change at Hearst Castle. Visitors can stroll the grounds on their own to enjoy the hilltop like one of Hearst’s guests.
- Establishing Cambria State Marine Park, the first state marine park under the Marine Protected Area legislation.
- Ongoing, successful protection of the Western snowy plover.
- Growing elephant seal population, improved partnership with Friends of the Elephant Seal, and ongoing adaptation to managing visitors’ ability to view the activities of these amazing creatures.
- Adding Irish Hills properties to Montaña de Oro State Park, creating future opportunities to complete the California Coastal Trail.
- Ongoing partnership with Cayucos Land Conservancy. Completed restoration of San Geronimo Creek. Opening Harmony Headlands State Park to the public.
- Current conversion of some campsites in Morro Strand to full hookups to improve services available to coastal visitors during the winter and off-season months.
- Completed rehabilitation of Morro Bay State Park campground.
- Cultural landscape report that included adding the campground to the National Register of Historic Places for its connection to the CCC/WPA development during the Great Depression.
- The impressive dune restoration over the past many years at Morro Strand.
- Districtwide ADA improvements, most recently the Bluff Trail at Montaña de Oro. Also seeing various disability advocates using the trail and enjoying a spectacular place that was previously unavailable to that segment of the population.
- Cooperative spirit of various trail users (equestrians, hikers and mountain bikers), in contrast to so many other places in the state and in the country.
- Cooperative work with Caltrans to meet visitor needs at Estero Bluffs, the elephant seal viewing area, and upcoming Highway 1 realignment at Piedras Blancas.
- Cooperative agreements with Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Bureau of Land Management for the North Coast area including Coastal Discovery Center and Piedras Blancas Outstanding Natural Area.
- Ongoing fundraising and support work of Friends of Hearst Castle and Hearst Castle Preservation Foundation.
- Completing the Cultural Landscape Report for the Castle that helps guide how to approach inevitable changes in vegetation and the formal gardens as well as visitor circulation and staff activities at the hilltop.