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Downright eerie

(ran PC, PS editions)

But evil things, in robes of sorrow, assailed the monarch's high estate; (Ah, let us mourn, for never morrow shall dawn upon him, desolate!) and, round about his home, the glory that blushed and bloomed is but a dim-remembered story of the old time entombed.

_ "The Haunted Palace," from The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe.

Don't believe in haunted office parks?

Well, then, draw nigh and huddle 'round.

What follows is not a tale for the faint of heart.

Over yonder, north of Interstate 75, is an office park big enough to hold 14 football fields.

There, tucked between pine trees and a multiplex, are five office buildings and three parking garages so grand that they cost more than $100-million to build in 1999.

The towering buildings of concrete and glass are still there. The grass is still mowed. The fountain at the entrance still gushes full bore.

But the workers are nevermore.

Almost a year since the last employee clocked out, New Tampa still mourns the sudden demise of this once vibrant campus. Not only did the campus promise an educated workforce among prospective home buyers, it guaranteed a corporate identity to counterbalance the bedrooms that dominate New Tampa.

A new corporate tenant could revive the park in the future. But for now, signs of life are remote.

On any given weekday, this vast campus _ one of the largest of its kind in Florida _ is a ghost town. It's immaculate, high-tech and desolate _ a forsaken monument to a bygone era of the dotcom boom years.

The eyelike windows of the buildings stare at the rare visitor. Crickets, the gurgling fountain and the distant rumble of I-75 traffic are the only sounds to pierce the pall of silence.

"It's really eerie," said Mike Butler, the maintenance manager who, along with two others, takes care of the buildings. "When it's empty like this, you start hearing things."

Inside the buildings, it's even more lonesome.

A phantasmagoric bronze sculpture of leaping dolphins sits abandoned in the corner of the polished Italian granite-floored lobby of the executive building. Not a soul stirs at the 32-foot-long conference table in a darkened room on the sixth floor.

Across the deserted campus is Building 2, which holds a cafeteria that once served 1,500 employees. Its stainless steel walk-in freezers contain not a crumb. A banner taped above the coffee bar proclaims: "We proudly serve Starbucks coffee."

Nevermore.

Not too long ago, each of the five buildings was made for Intermedia Communications, one of the most glamorous Tampa Bay companies during the 1990s.

Promise burned so brightly for the provider of telephone and Internet services that Highwoods Properties, a Raleigh, N.C., developer, built Intermedia 824,000 square feet of office space. By 2001, the office park was supposed to have more than 3,500 employees.

Its buildings were outfitted with the gadgetry of the day: Dolby SurroundSound, fiber optic cable, smart lights that illuminated the hallways.

The jewel of the park was the network operations center, or NOC (pronounced "nock"). Fortified with windows that could withstand 175-mph winds, the two-story, 176,000-square-foot NOC served as Intermedia's nerve center. It's where company technicians would monitor a network of more than 90,000 customers and midsized businesses in 37 states.

The NOC won design awards. Its sterling reputation lured NASA officials, who hoped to get ideas for their launch center in Cape Canaveral.

Though it was built to endure a Category 5 hurricane, the NOC, too, is nevermore.

"We call it Building 3," said Ann Minick, marketing coordinator for Highwoods Properties.

The room where Intermedia executives once took clients to show off workers scanning the company's communications network looks now like an abandoned space station: unattended monitors, desks stripped bare, a blank 24-foot screen that had depicted the company's growing communications network.

Each building is so quiet during the day that the handful of people who still work here feel spooked from time to time.

"It doesn't bother me when I'm with people," Minick said. "But if I'm alone, I'll pick up the phone and say, "Guys? Anyone there?' I guess it's human nature. We've seen too many horror movies."

What strange malady befell this forgotten corporate kingdom? What force drove away its workers? Where, oh, where is Intermedia now?

It turns out that while this dazzling office park was getting built, all was not well.

Throughout the 1990s, Intermedia had never turned a profit. In 1999, it lost $651-million. It was easy game for a company that boasted even greater reach from beyond the banks of the Mississippi.

WorldCom Inc. wanted a Web hosting company in Maryland controlled by Intermedia.

So on Sept. 1, 2000, WorldCom paid $6-billion to buy Intermedia after its board of directors spent 35 minutes discussing the purchase.

Intermedia's 4,500 employees, 1,200 of whom were working at the New Tampa office park, were now in the hands of a company with dark secrets.

Sixteen months after completing its acquisition of Intermedia, those secrets ensnared WorldCom in an $11-billion accounting scandal. In July 2002, the company filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, becoming the country's No. 1 bankruptcy of all time.

The stunning collapse spelled the end of employees at the office park.

The company pulled out of the park Jan. 2. Its bankruptcy filing allowed WorldCom to reject the lease on the five buildings in the office park.

Employees haven't worked there since Dec. 31.

"It was sad more than anything," Minick said. "We were proud of what we had built, and we never thought it would be empty like this."

But WorldCom's collapse left a void felt far beyond the walls of the office park. When the employees left, so did the hope that New Tampa would soon become anything more than a bedroom community.

The office park's 50 acres originally were part of the Tampa Palms development plan. When city officials and developers blessed the concept in the 1980s, they agreed to reserve massive swaths of land for offices.

"There was a sense that New Tampa would be a healthier community economically if it wasn't just a suburb," said Scott Paine, who served on the City Council from 1991 to 1999. "We wanted a community where you would have corporate partners who have stakes in the neighborhood and a full, diverse community where you could live close to where you work."

A weak office market eroded those dreams. Much of the land that was to be devoted to offices was swapped for homes. The Intermedia campus and USAA Property and Casualty Insurance Co.'s complex south of I-75 were exceptions to that trend.

So WorldCom's departure was all the more devastating.

"When you lose a corporate partner like that, it's like losing a major anchor at a shopping mall," Paine said. "It had its own power to attract other businesses. When WorldCom left, we lost all of that as well as the employees."

In the aftermath of WorldCom's debacle, New Tampa's landscape is ceding even more offices to homes.

In August, the City Council agreed to rezone 15 acres near Intermedia so that Highwoods could build 160 homes. Highwoods had intended to build 326,000 square feet of additional office space. But because of market conditions, those plans are, alas, nevermore.

"If we have all that vacant space out there, the prospects of us needing extra land for more office space are pretty slim," said Steve Meyers, vice president of Highwoods Properties and regional manager in Tampa Bay. "We have to do what makes sense for our shareholders."

Hope, however distant, is on the horizon.

Highwoods Properties does intend to fill up the old Intermedia complex, which remains in pristine condition, as quickly as possible.

In May, Highwoods hired Cushman & Wakefield, the New York commercial real estate services giant, to market the property to large high-tech, pharmaceutical or financial companies.

Cushman's executive director, Andy May, calls the Highwoods office park the largest available in Florida and possibly the southeastern United States. He's marketing it to firms nationwide, and thinks a company will rent or buy it in the next year.

One reason for the optimism is an improving economy that will encourage large companies to move, something that most have postponed for a couple of years, May said.

And the Tampa Bay office market looks to be one of the first to recover, according to the commercial real estate company CB Richard Ellis.

The Highwoods office complex represents about 14 percent of the available office space along the Interstate 75 corridor in Tampa Bay, said Anne-Marie Ayers, a vice president for CB Richard Ellis.

Space will rent for $20 to $21 a square foot, which is more than the county average of $16 a square foot but about the same as the $20 average rate in downtown Tampa.

"Companies do have heightened security requirements," Ayers said. "That campus is secure. It's also geographically well located and has low labor costs."

Financial giant Deutsche Bank AG has flirted with the park since at least May, but it's uncertain how that deal is progressing.

Meyers is hopeful that Florida's efforts to lure the Scripps Research Institute and other high-tech companies will eventually help fill the complex.

While silence lingers this Halloween, business minds portend a lifting of the curse.

"As the market recovers," Meyers predicted brightly, "this park will be filled."

Ann Minick, marketing coordinator for Highwoods Properties, stands in the stark white abyss of a former data room for Intermedia Communications, which once provided telephone and Internet services for more than 90,000 customers and businesses in 37 states.

Highwoods Properties of Raleigh, N.C., built Intermedia 824,000 square feet of elite office space. By 2001, the office park was supposed to have more than 3,500 employees. The five buildings are so quiet during the day that the handful of people who still work here feel spooked from time to time. "I guess it's human nature. We've seen too many horror movies," said Minick.

BEFORE: This was the scene in January 2001 in Intermedia's network operations center. The 24-foot screen depicts the company's growing communications network.

AFTER: The operations center is a ghost of its former self. Cushman & Wakefield was hired to change that, and a Cushman exec thinks that in the next year a company will rent or buy the space.

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