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Duo push Tampa's charms to young

Two former USF student body presidents are working for Emerge Tampa to lure and retain young professionals.

By TAMARA EL-KHOURY
Published February 7, 2005


When the Tampa Chamber of Commerce gave Dianne Jacob the task of launching a program aimed at clogging the Tampa Bay area's young brain drain, she wanted to make sure the youthful team recruited to kick off the initiative had both the experience to run a large organization and the standing among peers to make it work.

"Certainly the student body president of a major university like (the University of Southern Florida) had those skills," said Jacob, 52, a member of the chamber board of directors and vice president of business development for Hardin Construction Co.

So she signed on not one, but two former USF student body presidents to serve unpaid 2-year terms as co-leaders of Emerge Tampa. The purpose is to lure young professionals to the area with a more appealing social and professional environment and to retain those who already are here.

It is based on the notion, put forward by influential author Richard Florida in his book The Rise of the Creative Class, that young people are attracted to cities more for the quality of life they offer than the job prospects.

Young, energetic and accomplished, Emerge Tampa's co-chairs, Jessica Muroff, 28, and Mike Griffin, 24, are emblematic the people Tampa Bay hopes to attract to run the city now that the baby boomers are inching toward retirement. In many ways, they are the face of the city that Tampa aspires to be.

At the time the two were recruited for the job, nobody at the Tampa chamber realized that Muroff and Griffin knew each other quite well. Or that the tale of their short, overachieving and intersecting careers would be the foundation for the Emerge experiment.

Griffin's first encounter with Muroff was when he was a high school senior. He walked into the student body president's office at USF and asked her to participate in the Great American Teach-In at his high school.

"I knew he was going to be student body president one day," Muroff said.

Griffin became one of the youngest student body presidents in USF's history and was re-elected to a rare second term.

They overlapped again, when, as a college freshman, Griffin was struck by a presentation Muroff gave to a group of student senators. Her advice to banish egos in favor of teamwork stayed with him, and the two later paired up to build USF's first Greek housing. When Muroff's goal of renovating the student center went idle upon her departure, Griffin was the one who rescued it.

Now, with their legacies at USF behind them, they have started building a new one on a much bigger campus.

Emerge borrows ideas from a similar program in Memphis. Open to 21- to 35-year-olds, the group holds meetings and events in five areas: volunteering, professional development, social events, communication and local government.

Members have gone to a Devil Rays game and worked the kitchen for Metropolitan Ministries. They watched a debate together during the presidential campaign. Ideas and discussions are driven by participants.

But the vision for Emerge is greater than creating an extensive happy hour network. Muroff and Griffin have big dreams for the program. They want members on the boards of directors at nonprofits. They want the group to be a consistent, key player in community decisions and for Emerge to have a reputation as a good place to look for talent.

Griffin is the manager of institutional services at Vertical Integration Inc., a commercial real estate company. An Eagle Scout and avid sports fan, Griffin already has been admitted into the USF Hall of Fame.

Muroff is a devotee of the arts, a newlywed and an account executive for Roberts Communications and Marketing Inc. She was her sorority's president and made a PowerPoint presentation, which she reviews for herself, of her New Year's resolutions.

"When I understood the two of them knew each other, it was a match made in heaven for Emerge Tampa," Jacob said. "They have a mutual respect of each other that is very admirable to watch. . . . They look for reaching a goal rather than who delivers the message."

When searching for two young leaders to lay the groundwork for Emerge, Griffin's name kept coming up.

"I kept asking about this Mike Griffin I kept hearing about, and his application came across my desk," Jacob said. "I had to check his age because I was stunned at how deep his resume was."

Griffin says he doesn't have to be the president of everything but he wants to be the hardest worker.

"I just want to drive as hard as I can," Griffin said. "Why be part of something if you don't want to try to be the best at it?"

He was the first student body president at newly formed Sickles High School, where his class picked the mascot and school colors. He served as an assistant football coach his first two years in college.

The year he was elected USF's student body president was the first year a spot on the university's Board of Trustees was reserved for the student body president.

He has taken an intense interest in education and is the chairman of the Hillsborough County School Board Citizen Advisory Committee. He was appointed to the Hillsborough Head Start/Early Head Start Community Foundation Board of Directors and was appointed to the Florida Department of Education's Advisory Council on Educational Facilities by Gov. Jeb Bush and Commissioner Jim Horne.

His resume goes on. And on.

Ward Griffin, 26, an attorney with the U.S. government, struggled to identify a flaw in his younger brother. He had to think about it.

"I wish he bought a more zippy car than a Camry," he finally offered.

"He's very professional, traditional. He's a very centered and grounded type of person who has very strong values and principles," Muroff said. "That's what he lives by."

When Colleen Chappell, executive vice president of Roberts Communication, first interviewed Muroff, she knew right away Muroff was perfect for the job.

"Whenever there's a project at the firm or maybe we're going down some unchartered territory or working on something that's new to our capabilities, she's the first to raise her hand and say, "I'd like to try that, I'd like to be involved,' " Chappell said.

As a child, Muroff created a neighborhood newspaper, complete with an advice column. She considers cooking an art. She has been skydiving with her father, is always on time and is in a wine tasting club called the Grapevine. She was Miss Congeniality in the Miss Florida Teen pageant in 1994.

"I feel like I married Wonder Woman," said Mike Muroff, 31, her husband since April. "Everything she does is to an extreme."

When the couple goes out, she comes home with a stack of business cards she has collected from people she has vowed to get involved in something.

"She has a way with connecting with people in a manner unlike any other I've experienced," Griffin said. "The first time you meet her you feel this power, this aura, this energy."

The duo share a common vision and love for the community where they both grew up, went to school and plan to raise families.

"They were both people, as a staff person, that you wanted to help out because they cared," said Joe Synovec, assistant director of operations for USF's student center. "They were doing things for the right reason and not to get their name in the college paper or to build their resume or legacy."

They both thrive on the opportunity to start something from scratch. They say young professionals don't yet see the potential of Tampa as a great city to work and live.

"Tampa is growing, Tampa is on the move," Griffin said. "We need to engage more people in this city . . . we want Emerge to be a player in the town."

Since its inception in May, Emerge has signed up more than 550 members and plans to recruit more aggressively. The yearly membership is $50 for those who work for a company that belongs to the chamber and $75 for those who don't.

Griffin says Emerge's success isn't quantitative. He hopes to see Emerge as a consistent player in community decisions, he said, a place where employers look for talent and an organization that can one day add mayors to its list of alumni.

The resounding sentiment from the chamber's board of directors is that launching Emerge Tampa is one of the best things the chamber has ever done, Jacob said.

"It has wonderful possibilities and my imagination can't even grasp where it will end up," Jacob said. "We didn't build the program for them, we built the infrastructure and they built the program, so it's up to them what it becomes."

Tamara El-Khoury can be reached at 727 893-8318 or telkhoury@sptimes.com

[Last modified February 4, 2005, 19:18:01]


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