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Intermedia deal rattles office park

About 500 Intermedia workers have transferred to Highwoods Preserve, where a retail complex is being built. Now the future of the business park's anchor tenant is in doubt.

WorldCom Inc.'s announcement last week that it is buying Intermedia Communications Inc. has left many wondering about the future of the company's new headquarters.

Will Intermedia continue moving Tampa employees there? Will it vacate the premises? Will it sublease? Will the office space stand empty?

"It's big news in the real estate community," said Larry Richey, senior managing director of Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial real estate company. "Everybody's talking about it."

The Intermedia campus is part of Highwoods Preserve, a business park west of Bruce B. Downs just north of Interstate 75. An official with Highwoods Properties Inc. said Intermedia has a long-term lease on five buildings, some of which remain under construction. Highwoods is waiting to hear from WorldCom about its plans for the Intermedia campus.

"I don't think anybody knows right now," said Skipper Peek, vice president with Highwoods Properties. "But there is probably going to be a reduced need for space up there."

Mississippi-based WorldCom, the nation's second-largest telecommunications company, announced Tuesday it was buying Intermedia and selling off as much as 80 percent of the company's assets.

It remained unclear Friday what will happen to Intermedia's 4,600 employees, including 1,900 in Tampa, or to its $100-million headquarters. WorldCom executive John Stupka said earlier, "If someone is interested in the facility, we will sublease it. If it's useful for our operations, we'll keep it."

Intermedia spokesman Alan Hill said it is premature to discuss the future.

"Nothing is happening overnight concerning our presence in Tampa," he said. "It will take a few months for the merger to become finalized."

Real estate experts said if WorldCom chooses to find another tenant for the property, it shouldn't become a white elephant because the state-of-the-art facility is in a prime location in a growing I-75 market.

"If demand continues anywhere near where it's been for the last 18 months in that market, it may actually create an opportunity for Tampa," Richey said, "a large block of desirable "Class A' office space sitting there waiting for an in-town or out-of-town tenant."

Intermedia was to be the anchor of Highwoods Preserve. With 1,500 employees scheduled to relocate there from Sabal Park, 11 miles to the south, Intermedia would rival USAA as New Tampa's largest employer.

So far, about 500 Intermedia staff have transferred to the Highwoods campus, which was meant to hold up to 3,500 employees.

Highwoods officials said Intermedia was a needed shot in the arm for the business park, which includes a 20-screen Muvico theater and Ruby Tuesday restaurant.

Next month, Centennial American Properties of Greenville, S.C., plans to break ground on a new retail complex in Highwoods Preserve, the Walk, which will feature Linens & Things, Circuit City, Panera Bread Co. and Kinko's, among other businesses.

Centennial's director of development Chris Hack said he was a little "nervous" when he heard about WorldCom's purchase of Intermedia because the retail center would benefit from having so many of Intermedia's employees within walking distance.

"But from our standpoint, the reason the retailers and restaurants wanted to locate there is more because of the residential base than any of the office employment," he said. "It won't impact our development in any way."

If WorldCom makes the Intermedia campus available, Talmadge Bray, president of Coldwell Banker Commercial-The Founders Group in Tampa, said the facility would be attractive as a credit card service, insurance claims or telemarketing call center.

"You need a tenant that wants to be in a suburban environment and park environment rather than a downtown environment," he said. "You would need somebody with a lot of employees versus something like a law firm."

Richey described the I-75 market as "the most active in the Tampa Bay area of late," even though its office vacancy rate is higher than Hillsborough County as a whole.

If WorldCom pulls out of Highwoods, he said it is doubtful one single tenant would take Intermedia's 800,000 square feet of space.

Peek, with Highwoods Properties, said his emotions are mixed about the $6-billion Intermedia-WorldCom deal.

"On the one hand, WorldCom is an incredible company with tremendous financial strength," he said. "At the same time, a lot of people worked very hard on building a new headquarters for Intermedia."

_ Information from Times files was used in this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3473 or melaniesptimes.com.

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