Universal Health Care Group Inc. firmly planted its headquarters flag in downtown St. Petersburg this week with the $9 million purchase of the bottom two floors of the South Core Garage.
Built two decades ago at 100 Central Ave. for a Bay Plaza department store that never arrived, the distinctive but hard-to-lease space was called Central Station when it housed customer service departments of Florida Power in the late 1990s.
Now it has been dubbed 1 Universal Way, a name the new owners hope prods locals to stop calling the bell-towered, city-owned parking garage above it South Core.
The insurer has rented a quarter of the 160,000 square feet of office space since 2008. Now it's eager to remodel the rest of the two-story space, some of which has never been occupied.
The young, fast-growing insurance company — which specializes in a variety of Medicare Advantage plans — has already moved in 400 full-time workers.
"After looking at about 50 buildings all over the Tampa Bay area, we decided downtown St. Petersburg is the best place to be," said Dr. A.K. Desai, the company's founder and chief executive, who lives in Snell Isle. "About two-thirds of our workers live within 7 miles. I can see us quickly getting to 1,000 employees here."
Many were new hires as the company consolidated functions such as reducing its reliance on out-of-state call center vendors. Jobs pay in the $30,000 to $50,000 range, including claims processors and adjustors.
"We're setting down roots with the aim of being the employer of choice downtown," said chief operating officer Jim O'Drobnick.
Founded in 2002, Universal ran into trouble with state regulators in 2007. That's when the popularity of products like its Any, Any, Any Plan — which offers seniors a wide choice of doctors — caused membership to soar beyond the company's capital reserves to cover them. State regulators fined the company $450,000, froze enrollment and recommended liquidation if the company didn't shore up its finances.
The company was approved to resume selling coverage in February 2008 when it reported a surplus of $116 million plus reinsurance. Enrollment more than doubled to 100,000. Coverage spread to 11 states and will be extended to North Carolina, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.