The first time Gene McKnight saw Santa Barbara’s downtown, he was visiting with a friend who parked his Volkswagen Beetle near Figueroa Street when they happened upon a parade.

It was the summer of 1978, and McKnight, an Alabama native, unwittingly witnessed his first Old Spanish Days Fiesta.

“I had never seen so many horses, and I’m from the South,” said McKnight, who enrolled at Auburn University but also taught tennis at a UCLA camp each summer.

The introduction to the vibrant, coastal city stuck with McKnight, who fell for the historied charm and now promotes the area in his new post as president of the Santa Barbara Downtown Organization.

McKnight packed up his belongings and — jobless — headed west after graduation. He nailed a corporate gig with his business and marketing degree, and left only briefly — playing tennis professionally on a European tour— before he returned and discovered the commercial real estate business.

He was humbled to be appointed head of the membership-driven, nonprofit organization where McKnight has served as a board member nearly a decade.

With 1,400 due-paying members, McKnight leads the group to maintain and enhance business and cultural activity in the downtown area bounded by Anacapa, Chapala, Micheltorena and Gutierrez streets.

The organization was founded in 1967 and also sponsors mixers, the annual Downtown Holiday Parade, 1st Thursdays, the Downtown Art & Wine Tour, Shop Spree SB and more.

A 38-member board is stacked with some of the city’s biggest movers and shakers, said McKnight, who founded McKnight Commercial Realty two years ago after a long tenure at Pacific Commercial Real Estate.

“It’s really evolved,” McKnight said of the Downtown Organization. “Every year I think we’re getting bigger and stronger. There’s a passion that you can’t imagine. People are just so selfless. I’m just trying to keep up with them.”

In line with growth, McKnight said the organization would study whether to expand the business improvement district’s influence south past Highway 101 and on State Street to the beach.

The group will also keep up efforts to improve safety, cleanliness and panhandling in the downtown corridor, as well as government relations.

McKnight said he was excited to see the boost in cruise ship visits — about 30 total this year — and spoke highly of city parking.

He has found time to also help found IGF Realty Advisors, and is temporarily taking on executive director duties while the organization searches for a permanent replacement.

McKnight said the downtown organization has helped him realize why he stumbled upon Santa Barbara: to encourage others to visit.

“There’s not a more beautiful city in the U.S. that I’ve ever been to,” he said. “We’re a world-class destination.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.