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MetLife looks to Pinellas for possible move

Pinellas County economic development officials say they're close to landing a Metropolitan Life Insurance operation that would move up to 600 jobs to Pinellas Park.

But MetLife officials say it's too early for any announcements.

"It's very premature," said John Harris, a spokesman for MetLife in its New York City headquarters. "There are a number of locations in the Southeast region we are looking at. Tampa (Bay) is one of them."

Harris also said the relocation would bring fewer than 400 jobs.

A decision by MetLife could come in the next 45 days.

Harris confirmed that a building now occupied by the School Book Fairs company is being considered. The 80,000-square-foot building is in Gateway Centre, just west of 28th Street N. School Book Fairs was itself a relocation that was supposed to bring up to 400 jobs to Pinellas.

Pinellas officials were upbeat about their chances, even though they acknowledged that an unspecified Tampa site is also in the running.

"It's coming," said William Castoro, director of the Pinellas County Industry Council.

"If economics is what is going to make the deal work, I don't see how they can choose anything other than the School Book Fairs site," said Richard Michael, the council's assistant director.

MetLife is negotiating with the owner of the School Book Fairs site for a five-year lease with options to extend the lease or purchase the property, Castoro said Tuesday. Frank Ryon, who represents owner First Union Corp., would not comment.

Pinellas County has offered financing if MetLife wants to buy the building, job training and employment programs and about $100,000 in other incentives for the relocation.

The nation's second-largest insurance company, MetLife already has 1,500 workers in the Tampa Bay area, which is one of five regional headquarters for the company.

The new MetLife office would spin off from an operation in Utica, N.Y., that handles group insurance claims, Harris said. MetLife has decided to move a section out of Utica that deals exclusively with claims by General Electric employees.

Castoro said the new jobs created here by a MetLife move would consist of telephone work and processing claims.

MetLife officials have examined sites in Hillsborough County for the past year and contacted Pinellas officials in July to expand their search, Castoro said.

Since that time, he added, MetLife officials have received research from Pinellas economic officials about employee skills here, toured the School Book Fairs site and the adjacent county garbage incinerator, hired environmental consultants to check out the property and even had dinner with Pinellas County Commissioner Charles Rainey.

Two GE officials who work closely with MetLife are expected to tour the site and the refuse-to-energy plant today, Castoro said.

The School Book Fairs building was built in 1990 with the help of a $9.5-million industrial revenue bond that lured the schoolbook creator and distributor here from Ohio. The company struggled, however, and was bought earlier this year by Ohio-based C.A. Short International Inc.

At that same time, the building was purchased by First Union, which paid off the industrial revenue bond and leased the facility back to School Book Fairs.

Now, the company is getting ready to move out of the building, said S. Robert Davis, chairman of C.A. Short.

School Book Fairs is on a month-to-month lease with First Union and is looking at a half-dozen relocation sites within three miles of its current building.