LARGO — One of Largo's biggest white elephants has finally found a new use.
The nearly 200,000-square-foot Centerpointe building on U.S. 19 had been vacant for five years. The cavernous structure with a two-story atrium and a vast parking lot, just north of Tri-City Plaza, had been sitting empty ever since the last tenant moved out in 2009.
Year after year, this place near East Bay Drive routinely made the lists of the most prominent vacant buildings in the Tampa Bay area.
"Quite a few companies have looked at the building, but the economy has been down," said Tom Kennedy, a broker with Westport Commercial Real Estate.
Now it's being filled by a major new tenant — a national call center operation called 24-7 InTouch, which handles customer calls for NetFlix and a number of other entertainment, retail and hospitality corporations. The company is recruiting to fill 300 customer service jobs by the end of summer.
"It's hard to find facilities that have the kind of parking that's required to do what we do. There were only a couple dozen locations in the whole Tampa Bay area that we would have considered," said Chris Wallace, the company's vice president of sales. "We chose this one because of how central it is in the bay area."
Largo Mayor Pat Gerard said the city is marketing its central location and ready access to commuting employees across Tampa Bay.
Instead of referring to the place as a call center, 24-7 InTouch actually calls it a "contact center" because employees also communicate with customers via email, social media and live chats on the Internet.
Headquartered in Canada, 24-7 InTouch has nine locations in the United States, Canada, Guatemala and India.
Why locate in Tampa Bay? Because it was suggested by Wallace, a Tampa native who put himself through the University of South Florida by working at Busch Gardens.
"Tourism is such an important part of the economy there. So many of us in the Tampa Bay area grew up in the hospitality industry," he said. "I knew that would translate into customer service."
Until 2009, the Centerpointe building was occupied by Special Data Processing Corp., which sells magazine subscriptions through telemarketing and sweepstakes promotions. That company, also known as National Magazine Exchange or ThinkDirect Marketing Group, moved to the Bardmoor Palms business complex near Bryan Dairy and Starkey roads.
Before that, the building was the local headquarters for Fortune Bank, then for AmSouth Bank.
Now 24-7 InTouch is leasing 130,000 square feet of the 197,000-square-foot building from its owner, a corporation in Tallahassee. An as-yet-unnamed tenant is leasing the remainder of the space.
Over the past month, 24-7 InTouch has begun major interior renovations. "We're finishing spaces as we're hiring people so they've got a place to work," Wallace said.
The company has hired 100 workers and plans to hire 200 more. Job seekers should go online to 24-7intouch.com/careers for information.
Kennedy, the commercial real estate broker, said easy access to major bus routes and a possible future rail line factored into the new tenant's decision.
"These contact centers are becoming the factory of the future," he said. "We're expanding into a whole new area of digital commerce, and these are the factories of the digital economy."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield.