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BrandTampa.com members share city scenes, city secrets

TAMPA — Environmentalist, meet preservationist.

City Council member, meet starving artist.

After all, you have something pretty big in common:

You live in Tampa. And you want to make it better.

That's the philosophy behind BrandTampa.com, the social networking Web site that has already connected more than 400 creative minds in discussions about everything from local hot-button issues to musings about the city's best kept secrets.

Unlike Facebook and MySpace, which focus on individual member profiles, BrandTampa focuses not the members themselves, but their city.

Profiles answer: Why are you here? What is your favorite thing about Tampa? Why do you stay?

But its founder Julia Gorzka wasn't always Tampa's biggest cheerleader.

Gorzka hated it here. And who could blame her?

Ten years ago, the art historian was plucked from her Sex and the City lifestyle in Manhattan to run her family's IT recruitment consulting business in Tampa, after her dad became ill. (He has since recovered.)

Her stuff sat in a storage space in New York City for two years while she lived in the 'burbs of Tampa Palms with her parents — no car, no friends — longing to leave, but not knowing when.

Then, her uncle offered her some wise words: "Hon," he said. "Get a life."

She took his advice, and took her stuff out of storage. She got an apartment in Davis Islands and started learning about the city in programs like Leadership Tampa Bay, which showed her all the hidden gems that keep the natives here.

Then, something happened. Her dad's company closed.

"Sweet freedom," she thought at first. But when she considered her options — New York, New Orleans — she couldn't believe her own decision:

"Wow," she thought. "I want to stay here?"

• • •

The transplanted Manhattanite loved urban living, so someone suggested she get in on the hot real estate market and help sell condos downtown. Most of her buyers were flippers who wanted to throw down money, but didn't think downtown would ever be more than a ghost town.

"We'll believe it when we see it," they told her.

Gorzka grew frustrated. They couldn't picture downtown life quite like she did. So she left real estate behind and picked up her digital camera. She'd brand Tampa, with a grass roots approach.

With her teeny dog LuLu in tow, she filmed tours of a few downtown condos before they opened. On YouTube, the bubbly Gorzka, with her wide smile and trademark square-rimmed glasses, became the face of downtown Tampa.

In June, she took the next step.

• • •

So, how to communicate? Gorzka thought.

Community workshops?

No one would show up.

E-newsletter?

Double-click, delete.

Her friends told her about the Ning platform, a template that allows users to create their own social networking sites. In June, she registered Brand Tampa, and word-of-mouth did the rest. The network filled with local coffee shop owners and indie musicians, neighborhood bloggers and nonprofit leaders.

Council member Linda Saul-Sena isn't as digitally literate as she wishes she could be, but she tried her hand at BrandTampa.com. She posted her thoughts about matters coming before the City Council and invited people to discussions about issues like preservation and the Hillsborough River. They actually showed up.

David Jenkins, producing artistic director for Jobsite Theater, saw some new faces supporting the local troupe's shows, thanks to Gorzka, who organized a BrandTampa night.

And Jessie Stehlik, in charge of marketing for Tre Amici @ the Bunker in Ybor City, was tired of seeing customers spend all day there on their laptops, searching for jobs. She wanted to do something to help, beyond giving discounts on their coffee.

She started a discussion on BrandTampa and got replies from people who do job counseling and review resumes. Less than a month after her first post, she has already planned a job fair at Tre Amici.

• • •

Gorzka now spends much of her time in what she calls a "war room" in her Bayshore condo. Big thoughts are scribbled on pieces of paper taped to her lime green walls; LuLu shares her lap with a MacBook.

She plans to spread the "Brand" network idea to other cities.

Her calendar is full of public speaking engagements, and she has recently launched a consulting business called City Linkage, which shows businesses and nonprofits how to use digital tools like video and Twitter to engage their audiences.

To what does she credit her instant success?

Tampa, of course.

"I'm not from here. I'm not a rich kid. In Tampa," she said, "all you have to do is want to make a difference."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

BrandTampa.com members share city scenes, city secrets 11/06/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 6, 2008 3:30am]
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