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Insurance company buys former Sears store

American Strategic Insurance has purchased this former Sears, empty since 2009. The buyers will demolish it and rebuild.

DIRK SHADD | Times (2009)

American Strategic Insurance has purchased this former Sears, empty since 2009. The buyers will demolish it and rebuild.

ST. PETERSBURG — After sitting empty for three years at the prime location where Gandy Boulevard and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street intersect, a former Sears store is slated to be the new home of an insurance company relocating from a nearby office park.

American Strategic Insurance Corp. has bought the 123,456-square-foot building on 13 acres for $4.1 million. The 15-year-old company plans to invest an estimated $20 million to make the site into a workplace with a child care center, gym, jogging trail, picnic area, volleyball court and tennis court. Oh, and it will be able to withstand a Category 5 hurricane.

Plans call for demolition of the former Sears (and Kmart) store on April 30. A parking deck will go in its place and two buildings about 125,000 square feet each will be constructed.

"When I started looking for more space the last thing I thought we'd do would be build. Obviously, real estate values are down and rent is cheaper now than when we moved into our current space," company CEO John Auer said. "But one of our criteria was a building that made us feel very comfortable; we'd have a place to work after a direct hit on St. Petersburg."

ASI offers property insurance in 22 states including Florida. During the string of hurricanes in 2004, employees were working 12-hour days and seven-day weeks.

"It became apparent to us we need to be in our office. Trying to go to temporary space (if the office is compromised) would be really inefficient," he said.

ASI has 315 employees currently crowded in 32,000 square feet at 805 Executive Center Drive W. It has added 50 employees a year for the past two years. Auer predicts there will be more hiring when they move into the new space but couldn't say how many jobs at this point.

The company has also come in first among midsize businesses in the Tampa Bay Times Best Work Place ranking the past two years. Auer credits his employees for ASI's growth.

"We have great people. Agents and customers would prefer to deal with pleasant, happy people and we give them that," he said. "We get our claims closed faster than other companies. Clients write to tell us they are pleased with the outcome."

Auer has been assured by Echelon, the new facility's developer, that one of the new buildings will be ready before the start of hurricane season in 2013. It will house the insurance side of ASI. The second building, which will include the child care center, is for the processing company. Construction will start on it after the first building is under way.

"One thing that is fortunate is that construction costs are down," Auer said. "Whatever it's costing now is less than three or four years ago."

Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or kssmith@tampabay.com.

Insurance company buys former Sears store 04/21/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 21, 2012 5:31am]
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