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Fresh faces bringing fresh ideas to business

By ROBERT TRIGAUX
Published June 27, 2004

[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
"I taught a graduate program and students were energized as if they had not engaged in a values-based discussion since Sunday school." -- Dr. Ron Hill, dean of the new College of Business at USF St. Petersburg, about the school’s emphasis on corporate and social responsibility.
[Times photo: Ken Helle]
"This gives us a direct connection with the chamber leadership so we can be representative of the young adult demographic in Tampa." -- Jessica Muroff, 27 and co-chairwoman of the recently created Emerge Tampa, a business group for up-and-comer adults between 21 and 35 that already boasts 400-plus members. Emerge co-chairman Mike Griffin is 23.

What could two 20-somethings, a new-to-the-area business school dean, two feisty preachers, a veteran urban redeveloper and a former TV-shopping executive possibly have in common?

In mid 2004, they are among the out-of-the-spotlight players injecting some of the best new ideas, highest energy and sheer commitment into the Tampa Bay area economy.

In Tampa, Jessica Muroff and Mike Griffin are breaking the business mold for young adults who long lacked the ear of the gray hairs who control the area's economic power. USF dean Ron Hill is assembling a school for MBAs built on social responsibility and real community involvement. Ministers Willard Lee and Sharon Streater are fighting an uphill battle to gain better wages for some of the area's working poor.

Don Hunter wants to punch through the urban inertia and find real ways to do what seems undoable: revitalize downtown Tampa. And Gerry Hogan has taken up the cause of an oft forgotten piece of public education: vocational and technical training.

In the broader Tampa Bay area business world, none of these people may feel he or she is making much of a mark. But, in fact, they all are. They are becoming major agents of change - for the better. And we'll be hearing plenty about them in the months and years ahead.

Here are their stories:

* * *

To the adage that young people should be seen but not heard, Jessica Muroff and Mike Griffin have a next-generation answer: Forget it. The two are co-chairing a business group called Emerge Tampa that, in existence less than two months, has attracted more than 400 paid members ages 21 to 35. The group - part social, part business networking, part untested economic force - is affiliated with the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and has its blessing. But Muroff, 27, and Griffin, 23, say Emerge Tampa is really here to offer a voice to young adults who want a say in the direction of Tampa's business culture. As co-chairmen, Muroff and Griffin can attend chamber board meetings as nonvoting members, and did so for the first time last Thursday.

"We want to ensure we lay the foundation so future Emerge Tampa co-chairs on the chamber board are, frankly, a force to be reckoned with," Griffin says. A year out of college, Griffin honed his skills as a USF student who served on the university's board of trustees. He now works at CLW Real Estate Services Group in Tampa.

Not that Emerge Tampa is just for wonks. Last week, the group arranged a backstage tour of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. On Saturday, some members of the group volunteered their time at Metropolitan Ministries. And thanks to the recent hot bats of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, eager members are signing up to attend the July 19 home game against the New York Yankees.

Muroff, who works for the Roberts Communications marketing firm, already has met with Tampa's City Council to say that Emerge Tampa hopes to be a strong community voice for young working adults. That's good news since major metropolitan areas are gearing up to compete for young talented adults in anticipation of the coming wave of retiring baby boomers.

This could be just the start. Deanne Roberts, an early backer of Emerge Tampa and former elected leader of the Tampa chamber, has moved on to head the statewide group called Leadership Florida. Her plan? To help establish Emerge groups for young business people across Florida, link them together and create a state Emerge - all geared to giving more voice and power to young adults.

This is good. These young folks are enthused. This is a win-win for the business community.

* * *

Ron Hill pulled together from modest resources an entire college of business at USF St. Petersburg. Then he created its unique brand. The MBA program on the St. Petersburg campus (distinct from USF Tampa's college of business) focuses on corporate social responsibility. And it emphasizes how to tell which numbers are real (and surreal) in corporate financial reporting. The school has even created an "MBA Essentials" program for working adults to help streamline the path to a degree.

"Social responsibility" is not just some academic mumbo jumbo. Hill is a get-out-of-the-classroom guy who has committed his school, resources and students to help the nearby and at times challenged Midtown community in St. Petersburg. Working with the blessing of St. Petersburg deputy mayor Goliath Davis and area economic development groups, USF business students are lending their skills to Larry Newsome, whose company is building a Kash n' Karry grocery store, and to others in the Midtown area.

"We won't solve all the problems, but we do want to help people to start a business or help a business to improve," Hill says.

The USF St. Pete business college also adopted nearby Maximo Elementary School and recently invited fifth graders to the school to consider ethical challenges in business situations.

All in all, not a bad start for a business dean who this week will celebrate his first year in St. Petersburg.

* * *

To the traditional Tampa business community, activist preachers Willard Lee and Sharon Streater are the pesky enemy who keep insisting at least some of the working poor deserve a "living wage" for an honest day's work.

No wonder business is upset. The preachers are challenging Florida industry's golden rule: cheap labor is critical to Florida's future.

Apparently Lee and Streater, who help run the Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality, or HOPE, see the working world differently.

The latest showdown occurred this month when Hillsborough County commissioners voted 4-3 against a plan for low-paid workers to earn more than poverty wages. The commissioners rejected a "living wage" plan to pay at least $9.97 an hour to employees of the county or private companies that conduct business with the county. The bump to just under $10 would have increased pay from today's $6.97 bottom wage for county employees.

"Living wage" refers to the level of pay sufficient to support a family's basic needs. The federal poverty line for a family of four is $9.06 per hour for one worker, or $18,850 a year. The living wage campaign should not be confused with separate efforts to raise the "minimum wage" in Florida.

Lee and Streater say the recent county defeat of their living wage plan will not deter their efforts. "We are not going to go away," Lee says. "Our tent is not folding."

HOPE's plan was opposed by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, which argued that a living wage rule would discourage cost-conscious businesses from relocating to the area.

Lee, HOPE's president, suggests that the chamber is looking at the world upside down. A living wage will help business, he argues. People who cannot afford decent housing or clothes or transportation will become more productive if they can gain the dignity of making enough money to buy things.

"It's funny how in Hillsborough County we can always find a way to find the funds for anything to be done, if the affluent part of the community wants it done," he says.

About 100 communities in the country have living wage standards and are doing just fine, Lee says. This is not a radical idea. This is not a handout.

"We are not out here advocating or trying to help those that are not trying to help themselves," he says.

Streater became the lead organizer for HOPE 15 years ago after stints around the country helping farm workers and others. She had contemplated a life as a veterinarian before becoming a Baptist minister. Her father once served as pastor of a Baptist church in Pinellas Park.

Lee and Streater will soon meet with HOPE to map out their next move in Hillsborough. HOPE, by the way, is organizing a chapter in Pinellas County.

The Tampa chamber opposed HOPE's living wage plan, but some business members do not. Tampa small business owner Lori Davis argues that a living wage would help Tampa and improve poor neighborhoods.

Chamber member Mark DiGiacomo of Digital Elixir Studios says the chamber urged him to "protest" the vote for a living wage. Instead, he sent the county a letter in favor of the higher pay. "We want to attract highly educated workers and the companies and jobs that can prosper here," he wrote. "This means first and foremost creating the environment that fosters better education and a higher standard of living for all of us."

* * *

What's the one thing the Tampa Bay area can do to give a boost to the regional economy and community spirit? Revitalizing downtown Tampa ranks high on any list.

That's where Don Hunter comes in. The veteran urban redevelopment guru was just named to head a team that will offer up a plan by early fall to help bring people, shops, homes - actual life - to downtown Tampa. Several recent studies, including one aimed at attracting younger and educated workers to this area, warn that a near-dead (after 5 p.m.) downtown Tampa is a major drag on the Tampa Bay area's future vibrancy.

Hunter's company, Hunter Interests Inc., has headquarters in Maryland. But it has an office in Clearwater, and Hunter has kept a home on Sand Key for 24 years. This guy has not even started the downtown Tampa project, but he knows the area well. He did a feasibility report for the Vinoy hotel in downtown St. Petersburg back in the 1980s when it was still boarded up and frequented only by rats.

Hunter sees downtown St. Petersburg, Greenville, S.C., and even Pittsburgh as places Tampa can learn from. His project is backed by $125,000 from the Tampa Downtown Partnership and the city of Tampa.

So what will help Tampa's downtown? For starters, Franklin Street has fallen on hard times and needs particular attention, Hunter says. One piece of good news for Tampa is that some big-dollar investments - including convention center, performing arts center and aquarium - already exist. The bad news is they are too far away from one another to reinforce their appeal.

"Just about every city of every size is seeking redevelopment," Hunter says, "some more aggressively than others." Tampa's big plus over many U.S. cities, Hunter adds, is that Florida remains a high-growth destination. That will make downtown's rebound a whole lot easier.

* * *

Once upon a time, Gerry Hogan worked as Atlanta billionaire Ted Turner's right-hand man. Then Hogan landed a job in St. Petersburg as chief executive of Home Shopping Network. When he left HSN nine years ago, Hogan chose a low-profile job building a publishing business.

Hogan may have left the limelight, but he's become a beacon for public education. He has teamed up with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and education philanthropist Gus Stavros to help raise money for one of public education's ignored segments: vocational and technical training.

The trades - plumbers, electricians and mechanics among them - can pay good money, yet tradesmen are in terribly short supply. Hogan, who is a past chairman of the Pinellas County Education Foundation, has been working quietly to change that.

Hogan and partners built Cygnus Business Media into a small empire with 60 business-to-business publications. In 2000, he sold the company for a reported $275-million. Now Hogan's business interests include a stake in Atlanta's Endurance Business Media, another publishing venture that recently purchased the parent company of Tallahassee's Homes & Land magazine and other properties. Hogan recently pledged to use his printing resources to help publish a magazine to showcase local schools.

- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or 727 893-8405.

[Last modified June 27, 2004, 01:00:42]


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