After spending 12 years in Paris — and after trying to manage living in a small apartment in the city with her husband and their 2-year-old son — Jen Ahearn-Koch decided it was time to go back home.
When her family settled in Sarasota in 1996, naturally, one of the first things they did was go to the beach. She remembers the first time Toby, her son, stepped foot on the gulf’s shores. He took off running.
Her husband, Thomas, instinctively grabbed for him, conditioned by a prolonged period of intense urban living. But Ahearn-Koch stopped him. This is what they came to Sarasota for, she said. This was a place where you could let go of your toddler’s hand and not have to hold your breath.
“He just ran and ran, and we just walked right behind him,” Ahearn-Koch said. “That sense of freedom that we let him have and that we had — I think about it all the time.”
Ahearn-Koch first moved to Sarasota with her mother when she was 14, but it wasn’t always clear she’d come back. A Cardinal Mooney graduate, she went to Paris for college. After earning a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University in New York City, she returned to Paris. There, she met her husband and began a career in marketing.
Spending time in those booming metropolises, she never lost her connection to Sarasota. When she and her husband were looking for a new home, it was the only American city they considered.
“You walk outside, and you smile,” she said. “There’s the blue sky; it’s beautiful. It’s uplifting. It’s energizing. It’s hopeful.”
That’s a feeling she’s passionate about preserving, which has led to her candidacy for a seat on the City Commission. As the top vote-getter in the March election, she believes it’s something other residents care about, too.
It has been a natural progression. She was first active in her neighborhood, eventually becoming president of the Tahiti Park Neighborhood Association. From there, she got involved in the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations, joining that group’s executive committee. From 2009 to 2015, she was a member of the city’s Planning Board.
Last year, she became a founding member of the resident-activist group STOP, which is lobbying the city on growth-related issues. Her experience has earned her a reputation as an opponent of development — a label she rejects.
During the runoff-election period, critics have tied her closely to STOP’s campaign to change the city’s development review procedures. Although she still serves on the group’s steering committee, she described it as a small part of her candidacy.
She wants people to consider the totality of her campaign, because she sees all of the issues at play as interconnected. She’s focused on drawing a connection between all of those topics, and making decisions accordingly.
She describes herself as an analytical thinker. It’s an instinct she’s had to steer away from while campaigning — given a limited amount of time to speak, she wants to focus on higher-level discussions rather than getting bogged down in the machinations of local government.
Thanks to her experience, she knows a lot about those machinations. That’s an asset as a prospective commissioner, she said.
“More than any specific stance on anything, I think that’s what people know about me,” said Ahearn-Koch, 52. “I have a process, whenever I make a decision, that’s very thoughtful and purposeful.”
She might not want STOP to define her candidacy, but she is a strong believer that public hearings will foster better developments. That’s rooted in her own experience. A decade ago, her neighborhood fought a proposal to build a boat-storage facility along Whitaker Bayou.
After a prolonged battle, the plans never came to fruition. Now, a new developer is planning a mixed-use project on the same site. After the developer met with residents, the neighborhood praised the proposal.
To Ahearn-Koch, this is an example of how the system should work: residents were insistent on a project that was in keeping with their neighborhood, and eventually, the end result was a project with which they agreed.
“Make it purposeful, with intent and with collaboration,” she said. “At the end of the day, it will be much better.”
She said running for City Commission was the logical next step, but putting herself out there as a candidate was still intimidating.
As people have volunteered to help her campaign, it has affirmed her decision to leap into the political realm. Amid the chaos of the election, that affirmation has served as her guiding force, propelling her toward the finish line.
“If it’s not resonating, then you shouldn’t be doing it,” Ahearn-Koch said. “And it is resonating. People keep coming out in support.”