Editor’s note: Charles Davidson covers the Atlanta tech scene for LocalTechWire.

ATLANTA … There was a time when a meeting of Atlanta investment bankers would fill a decent-sized hall at the Ritz Carlton. Now, they could just about fit in a booth at the White House Restaurant down Peachtree Street from where all their Buckhead offices used to be.

The closing of one-time high-flyer Robertson Stephens earlier this month was the latest backpedal in a headlong retreat from technology investment banking in Atlanta. There are no actual statistics, but at the height of the 1999-2000 tech boom, there were probably three dozen investment bankers based in Atlanta concentrating on information technology companies. Today, with the tech capital markets torpid, there are probably fewer than a dozen.

It’s mostly a consequence of the manic depression of the IT business in the past few years. Atlanta’s certainly not alone in feeling such consequences: Ask anyone in Austin or San Francisco.

And while the near disappearance of the city’s tech investment banking cadre stings, eroding Atlanta’s prestige as a technology and business center, it’s happened before. Joe Estes, managing director of JP Morgan Chase’s investment banking unit in Atlanta, points out that Bear Stearns has opened and closed local offices four times. This cycle was different in that the information technology and Internet industries fueled it.

Thinking regionally
A native Atlantan, Estes explains that the city’s status as a “classic regional center” means that during flush times, it’s a perfect place to open an office to chase business throughout the South. On the other hand, in leaner times, it’s easy enough to cover Atlanta out of New York or Boston.

It’s no mystery why the most recent attack and retreat happened. As venture investment in Atlanta companies soared in 1999 and 2000, reaching $2 billion in 2000, investment banks noticed. Figuring to help all these well-heeled startups go public and earn the accompanying fat fees, bankers swarmed.

Shiny national names like Hambrecht & Quist, Robertson Stephens and Alex. Brown came to town. Raymond James of St. Petersburg set up a new tech banking operation in Atlanta. So did First Union Securities. And old-line local brokerage house Robinson-Humphrey launched a big tech push in late 1999.

Local investors and technology boosters were giddy. This was proof positive that after so many years of talking about being a tech center to equal any outside Boston and Silicon Valley, Atlanta was finally getting there.

Hambrecht & Quist, a highly regarded name in tech circles that was later acquired by JP Morgan Chase, arrived first in 1999. That firm at one time had a dozen tech investment bankers in town. Robertson Stephens, the California-based bank that helped underwrite IPOs for Webvan, Corvis, Mapquest.com and Palm, opened an Atlanta office a few months later and eventually had as big a local staff as H&Q.

Empty feeling
Today, Robertson Stephens is gone. The old H&Q office is down to a half dozen tech bankers. And Estes, who used to work exclusively with tech companies, now spends just half his time on tech … and even then it’s with large, established companies in the South.

After its parent merged with Wachovia, First Union Securities’ Atlanta tech banking office was shuttered and the bankers offered the chance to move to Northern Virginia or California. That’s where Wachovia Securities, as it’s now called, is focusing its tech banking energies, says a spokesperson.

Even Robinson-Humphrey, now part of the commercial banking company SunTrust, has dramatically scaled back its technology initiative. Other old “regional” investment banks, such as J.C. Bradford, Morgan Keegan and Interstate Johnson Lane, have been acquired away.

“I’ve seen it before,” says Tom Avery, head of tech investment banking at Raymond James and a 25-year veteran of the business. “When we have a major market run-up, the big firms come in and open up regional offices. As soon as the markets tank, those are the first ones to leave.”

Tank is putting it mildly. Ten Atlanta technology companies went public in 2000. The last was Elastic Networks, which started trading Sept. 28, 2000, and raised $101 million.

Nearly two years later, nary an Atlanta tech company has hit the public markets since. And besides desperation sales … like Elastic’s acquisition in March by Paradyne Networks for $29 million in stock — there’s not a lot of merger and acquisition work going on. Of course, helping little companies raise private equity is not a vigorous business either.

That doesn’t leave a whole lot for investment bankers to do.

Avery says his group has been working for some time with technology services companies that work for the government. Indeed, Raymond James this year co-managed IPOs for SRA International, SI International and MTC Technologies, all tech or electronics companies that make government work their main mission.

One of the other investment banks still doing business here is RBC Capital Markets, the former Dain Rauscher Wessels. But technology is hardly on the menu just now, says David Linch, a managing director in the Atlanta office. At SunTrust Robinson-Humphrey, meanwhile, analysts are spending more time following carpet makers and restaurant companies than software houses.

That’s the way of the markets. They come and go. And Avery and Estes say that in five or 10 years, if stock markets are again raging and companies are busy going public and otherwise raising money, the big names will again come calling.

For now, while it bites when glamorous firms leave town, it underscores that Atlanta is and will remain the headquarters of business in the South … nothing more, nothing less.