Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia unveiled plans Thursday to consolidate its Columbus operation — including nearly 1,800 local employees — to a new building that will be constructed and leased at Muscogee Technology Park in the Midland area of north Columbus.
The project, which should be completed by 2015, will give the health-care insurer room to grow, it said, with the office building accommodating up to 2,000 employees, which the company will fill as business demand increases.
The move means the existing office complex on Warm Springs Road — which Blue Cross owns and has called home since 1958 — will be vacated and put on the market for sale, said Morgan Kendrick, president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia.
“The fact of the matter is we’re tapped out on space here at Warm Springs Road. We’re also already tapped out on space in the leased building at Midland,” Kendrick said after making the company’s announcement at the Warm Springs Road complex. “So the idea is let’s construct a building that is a state-of-the-art, flagship facility for WellPoint and also have the opportunity for expansion should we decide to move more business and more operations into this geography.”
Last year, Blue Cross signed a two-year lease for 47,700 square feet of space to house 380 employees temporarily at 6175 Technology Parkway. That’s in a portion of the 434,000-square-foot building now occupied by MDV, a division of Nash Finch Co. MDV, which supplies military commissaries, including the one at Fort Benning, is using most of the structure for a warehouse and distribution center.
The company has been ramping up its local presence due to the rollout of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The law mandates that U.S. citizens purchase health-care insurance policies through “exchanges” operated by insurers such as Blue Cross, unless consumers opt out and pay a fine.
Blue Cross also was awarded a contract to administer the State Health Benefit Plan in Georgia. The company said it serves nearly 3 million Georgians. The burgeoning business prompted the insurer to add more than 800 workers locally in 2013, putting pressure on existing facilities.
Atlanta-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia is part of Indianapolis-based WellPoint Inc., a for-profit managed health care company that merged with Anthem Inc. a decade ago.
The expansion project will consolidate the 380 workers at the recently leased Midland office space and the 1,400 staffers at the Warm Springs Road facility into a three-story building on 30 acres inside Muscogee Technology Park, which is located off Macon Road (U.S. Highway 80). Other tenants in the 1,151-acre park include Litho-Krome, FedEx Ground, Menlo Worldwide Logistics, Pratt & Whitney and a couple of NCR Corp.
Construction should begin this summer on the new facility, the company said, with it expected to be ready for occupancy in the summer of 2015. The square footage, which is subject to change, is about 235,000 square feet.
Kendrick could not pin down how fast the facility would grow to the 2,000-employee count. The jobs are all related to customer service, he said, including claims, operations and clinical management.
“Right now the desire is let’s get everything built, let’s get everybody in it and let’s see how business continues to progress,” he said. “We’ve had a very successful year. Health insurance exchanges across the WellPoint organization are moving along, as we expected them to. Again, so goes our business here, and so goes WellPoint’s business, our continued growth will occur.”
Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, naturally, welcomed the moment, which she said took many meetings between the insurer and Columbus economic development people, including the city and the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, to nail down the ultimate announcement Thursday.
“It’s about relationships and taking care of the businesses you have, because Blue Cross and Blue Shield could have gone anywhere. But they chose to share this expansion with Columbus, Georgia, and obviously we’re very grateful for that,” she said. “This is going to be a major capital investment for a facility that will house up to 2,000 employees, and that’s 2,000 Columbus families that will be touched by this expansion and this investment.”
Development Authority of Columbus chairman Dick Ellis said it took more than a year to work everything out, while Mike Gaymon, chamber president and chief executive officer, said when city officials learned that Blue Cross was in an expansion mode, they wanted to make certain it was locally and not elsewhere. Chamber economic development executives Brian Sillitto and Becca Hardin — who left the chamber last summer — spearheaded the effort. The capital investment total and incentives for the project were not released Thursday.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia employs nearly 4,000 in the state, Kendrick said, with the Columbus operation its largest single location. There are about 1,300 people working at a center in Atlanta’s Buckhead area, with an 80-person call center in Savannah, and a handful of sales offices scattered across the state.
The insurer has been at the 2357 Warm Springs Road site since 1958, when the original structure was constructed. The multi-story tower was added in the late 1960s, with yet another expansion in the 1970s. Kendrick said there are plans to sell the property, timing it with the relocation of workers there to the brand new Midland operations center.
“That’s something we’ve got to work with the company on as far as their plans,” Sillitto said of future marketing of the site. “They won’t make the move to the new facility probably until late summer or fall of 2015. So there’s still time.”