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New Sarasota County leaders meet the community

Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County President and CEO Brian Hersh, incoming Visit Sarasota County President and CEO Erin Duggan and Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County President and CEO Erin Silk.
Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County President and CEO Brian Hersh, incoming Visit Sarasota County President and CEO Erin Duggan and Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County President and CEO Erin Silk.
Photo by Monica Roman Gagnier
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There's been a changing of the guard at the organizations that support tourism, arts and economic development in Sarasota County. 

On Aug. 22, the new leaders of Visit Sarasota County, the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County and the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County held a panel discussion at CMX CinéBistro Siesta Key moderated by Business Observer Managing Editor Mark Gordon.

The event, which filled Theater 6 at CMX CinéBistro and featured drinks and hors d'oeuvres before and after, gave each of the three new leaders the chance to introduce themselves and their organization in three minutes or less. 

Joining Gordon on the podium were incoming Visit Sarasota County President and CEO Erin Duggan, Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County President and CEO Brian Hersh and Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County President and CEO Erin Silk.

Afterward, Gordon asked them questions — some funny ("Barbie" vs. "Oppenheimer") and some serious — about the role of their organizations and who they see as their competition across the country. 

In some cases, the new leaders are filling the shoes of longtime heads of their respective organizations. When Duggan officially steps into her new job at Visit Sarasota County in September, she will replace Virginia J. Haley, who is retiring after 24 years at the helm of VSC. 

Duggan has held a variety of roles at the tourism organization since 2006 and is credited with creating the successful Savor Sarasota Restaurant Week to lure locals and tourists out to eateries during the off season.

In June, Hersh succeeded Jim Shirley, who took the helm as executive director of the organization formerly known as the Arts Council in 2009.

Hersh spent more than 20 years in nonprofit arts administration, including posts at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and Asolo Repertory Theatre. Prior to joining the Alliance, Hersh led Sarasota County Public Schools' strategic approach to arts education. 

At the EDC, Silk in June succeeded Lisa Krouse, who retired after leading the agency since August 2021. Silk joined the EDC as director of business development in April 2019 and was previously vice president of business development services and most recently chief operations officer.

At the panel discussion Duggan, Hersh and Silk all acknowledged the contributions of their predecessors to the growth of tourism, the arts and new business in Sarasota while also acknowledging the town's considerable built-in attractions, from beautiful beaches to friendly, laid-back charm.

Duggan noted that all three of the groups represented on the podium report to Sarasota County government. She said that in fiscal 2023, VSC had an operating budget of $5.2 million, which will increase to $8.5 million next year.

Sarasota County's tourist development tax of 6% generates more than $42 million a year, with the majority (23%) going to beach replenishment. The arts receives 8% of the total, she said.

VSC works to attract visitors to Sarasota County year-round, Duggan said, and divides arrivals into three categories — those who are here for leisure, to participate in sports and for meetings.

She applauded the county's approval of an indoor sports complex at Nathan Benderson Park. In May 2022, county commissioners unanimously approved devoting $20 million toward a new boathouse and a 100,000-square-foot event center on the second floor. The new facility is expected to attract more rowing, paddling and other nautical events to Sarasota.

The Arts Alliance, which administers the tourist tax dollars allocated to the arts, has more than 200 arts organizations on its rolls, Hersh said, and that doesn't include hundreds of individual artists. Sarasota is "Florida's Cultural Coast," he said. 

Hersch believes the Alliance can help leverage the arts to promote health and wellness in the community, but he also says the organization's goal is to support the well-being of artists who live here.

He applauded the Sarasota City Commission's unanimous Aug. 21 approval of the Public Art Plan 2030 developed by senior planner Mary Davis Wallace. That action also included doubling the development tax, from 0.5% to 1% on projects of $1 million or more to help support and expand the city's public art collection.

In her remarks, Silk noted the EDC's mission is to promote a diversified Sarasota area economy that protects "against economic volatility resulting from pandemic, red tide and hurricanes."

Her group targets CEOs who come to Sarasota on vacation who might consider relocating or expanding their company's operations here. "Chicago is a big area where we market" the benefits of moving to Sarasota, Silk said.

Since 2019, the EDC reckons its marketing efforts have been responsible for $108 million in new capital investment and $85 million in new annual payroll in Sarasota, she said. That was the year that the agency launched its "Work Where You Want to Live" to encourage job creation and remote work in Sarasota.

Both she and Duggan noted that after a frenzied recovery post-pandemic, spending and tourism in Sarasota remain strong but are continuing at more sustainable levels. 



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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