Health tech firm bringing jobs to city

A major health care software firm will expand in the city of Atlanta, moving 100 jobs from Alpharetta to the intown area with plans to add hundreds more over the next five years.

Athenahealth is in final talks to locate its expanded operations at the former City Hall East building, where it would become a major tenant at a development now known as Ponce City Market, according to two people with knowledge of the deal.

The Massachussetts-based company’s presence would be a big win for the complex on Ponce de Leon Avenue, bringing a base of white-collar workers to support stores, restaurants and apartments and the neighboring Atlanta BeltLine.

Athenahealth’s move also would be a reversal of the past few decades when many technology firms skipped intown locations to take root in Alpharetta.

A spokeswoman for the company confirmed Athenahealth plans to expand in the city but said the Ponce City Market site is not yet final. The company has also looked at the Centergy building in Midtown near Georgia Tech and Capital City Plaza near Lenox Square in Buckhead.

Athenahealth has signed a letter of intent to lease significant office space at Ponce City Market, the two people with knowledge of the matter said.

State and city officials are expected to announce a deal in the coming days, and the job total could eventually grow to well beyond 500, one person said. The new jobs are expected to pay more than $65,000 annually on average.

The mayor’s office, Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic recruitment arm, and state economic development officials declined to comment. It isn’t clear if economic incentives were involved in the company’s recruitment.

The project would be among the largest recent economic recruitment wins for the city. Many recent headline-grabbing jobs announcements have involved sites in the suburbs or beyond. And Alpharetta had developed in recent years into a high-tech hub, particularly for medical technology firms.

But Atlanta has netted significant technology jobs deals in recent years as well. For instance, Asurion Insurance Services last year announced it would put up to 250 jobs in Buckhead, and Panasonic opened a research center near Georgia Tech.

State and local economic development officials have shifted some of their efforts in recent years to helping local firms grow and bring research and development jobs to Georgia to complement manufacturing recruitment.

The pivot has been paying off. General Motors is bringing 1,000 IT jobs to Roswell, mobile software maker AirWatch is growing in Sandy Springs by at least 800 employees and AT&T has said Atlanta is in contention for a research center known as the Foundry.

Athenahealth would be the first major jobs announcement for the redevelopment of the former City Hall East.

Sears originally developed the property into a store and massive distribution center, but the company shut it down in the late 1980s.

The city acquired the property a few years later for $12 million, but it used only a fraction of the space and its plans to lease other portions stalled.

In October 2010 the city announced it would sell the property to Jamestown, a development company with home offices in Atlanta and Germany, for $27 million.

Jamestown, known for transforming forgotten buildings into bustling centers, wants to turn the property into a mix of office space for non-traditional users, including high-tech companies. The company also plans high-end apartments and stores and restaurants. Ponce City Market is expected to open in 2014.

The development is at a critical crossroads for the BeltLine. Several substantial residential projects have been built in recent years along the eastern BeltLine segment in Inman Park and Old Fourth Ward east of downtown.

Ryan Gravel, a Perkins+Will architect whose 1999 master’s thesis formed the original basis of the BeltLine, said redevelopment of Ponce City Market “validates” the vision of the trails and transit as an economic driver.

Much of the focus on redevelopment so far has been retail and residential, but there is strong potential for white and blue collar job creation, he said.

“Ponce City Market could become a real center of employment on the eastside,” he said.

The health care IT sector is booming as medical records and other critical heath information migrates from paper to electronic platforms. Athenahealth also is involved in health care practice management software and billing.

About 190 health care IT companies operate in Georgia, with more than 15,000 workers, according to the Technology Association of Georgia.

“It’s the kind of jobs we’ve been trying to recruit nationwide,” Mercer University economist Roger Tutterow said. “There’s a lot of competition for them.”