In his two decades leading Argus, Kerry Kirschner emphasized collaboration and big-picture thinking.
| 12:00 a.m. March 5, 2015
When Kerry Kirschner joined the Argus Foundation in 1994, he was excited by the opportunity. With his experience — Kirschner worked as an executive with mul- tinational companies, started his own business and became mayor of Sarasota — he felt like a natural fit for an organization facilitating collaboration between the private and public sectors.
More importantly, he saw room for the Argus Foundation to grow. If the nonprofit pro-business group broadened its scope beyond the niche interests it had concerned itself with in its first decade, Kirschner believed Argus could become an essential part of the fabric of Sarasota.
“I felt that its mission was very important to Sarasota, and it was the collective voice of the business community,” Kirschner said. “It had started off on a very narrow focus on building and development, and I thought if you broadened that focus, it could be very important as a voice in the community.”
More than 20 years later, Kirschner is departing the organization having achieved that goal. Kirschner, who announced his retirement in October, is the guest of honor at an Argus Foundation event Thursday commemorating his time as executive director. A look at the Argus Foundation’s website, which includes education, transportation and health and human services among the group’s areas of emphasis, indicates the scope of the organization’s work has broadened since its inception.
Bill Merrill, the previous president of the Argus Foundation’s board, attributes the group’s growth to the hard work of Kirschner.
“He’s a thought leader on so many things,” Merrill said.
Merrill said Kirschner was adept at bringing people with opposing opinions together, get- ting them to coalesce behind a shared goal.
He pointed to the 2014 Sarasota County School Board referendum, where Kirschner reached out to the City Coalition of Neighborhood Associations to call for the creation of a citizen oversight board to monitor how the tax funds were spent.
Eventually, both groups — often seen as having adversarial interests — got what they wanted.
“He’s always looking for a way to collaborate with others to accomplish the better good for the community,” Merrill said. “He just had a way of doing that.”
“For a guy with no cell phone, he knows everybody."
Argus board member Kelly Caldwell said that another one of Kirschner’s greatest attributes was the degree to which he was dialed into the community.
“For a guy with no cell phone, he knows everybody,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell recalled a discussion the Argus Foundation held featuring a Q&A session with liberal billionaire George Soros — an event that came about quickly because Kirschner counted Soros as a contact. Caldwell said Kirschner’s willingness to engage with people of varying points of view helped the foundation foster serious, productive conversations.
“That’s the best thing about Kerry,” Caldwell said. “He had a very specific idea of what he thought, but he was open to talking to everybody."
Kirschner, 68, sees the foundation as a potent watchdog for the interests of area taxpayers. Argus derives its name from a creature in Greek mythology with 100 eyes, an image the organization hopes to project to public bodies.
In addition to fighting against government bloat, the group is also concerned with generally improving the quality of the life in the community. A nonpartisan organization, the Argus Foundation has tackled issues involving education, the airport and affordable housing. The business community benefits when there’s more reason to stay in — and come to — Sarasota, so Kirschner said the betterment of the general public is good for Argus, too.
“As a watchdog, I think we've brought up — and brought to the community’s attention — a lot of issues of importance.”
He’s particularly proud of the emphasis the foundation has put on calling for more rigorous standards in local education spending. Kirschner believes the Argus Foundation filled a void in scrutinizing how Sarasota County School District funding — which represents about half of county ad valorem tax bills — is ultimately allocated.
“Prior to us, there was nobody who was doing that,” Kirschner said. “It was sort of, ‘Oh, there goes our tax dollars.’”
By bringing together many segments of the business community in Sarasota, Kirschner said the Argus Foundation has opened better lines of communication, highlighted by the formation of the Sarasota Coalition of Business Associations. That, in turn, makes it easier for local government entities to ascertain the needs of the private sector.
“Having been an elected official, I can tell you how difficult it is when you have eight organizations in ‘business’ coming to you and they all have a different agenda,” Kirschner said.
Kirschner is still undecided about what the future holds for him, but he doesn’t intend to withdraw from the community to which he has dedicated himself for so long. He recalls a moment when, as mayor, a resident handed him a business card that listed his profession as “Not Retired — Redirected.” After 20 years with the Argus Foundation, Kirschner thinks that title suits him well.
“I imagine I’ll redirect myself in some fashion at some point in time,” he said.