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Carl Cronan is editor of Real Estate Florida magazine.

HOLLYWOOD, FL-Opinions on whether the US can avoid recession, or if we’re in one now, were widely varied during an International Council of Shopping Centers conference in South Florida last week.

“I don’t think we’re going to see a technical recession, but I think the first half of this year is going to be challenging,” says Hessam Nadji, managing director of research services with Marcus & Millichap in San Francisco.

Nadji, one of several presenters and panelists during the three-day ICSC Conference on Open-Air Centers concluding Friday morning, notes that consumer wealth tied to homeownership remained a net positive last year compared with 2002 a point largely overshadowed by ongoing foreclosures.

Peter Linneman, real estate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia, is even more succinct: “I think this will be an OK year, but I think ’09 will be a recession year.”

Milton Cooper, chairman and CEO of Kimco Realty Corp. in New Hyde Park, NY, believes we’re already in a recession, largely due to an excess inventory of real estate loans being held by banks that are practically unwilling to finance new deals.

“We’re facing a liquidity problem that is different from the other times,” Cooper told an audience of approximately 800 during Thursday’s luncheon address at the Westin Diplomat conference center on Hollywood Beach.

What others attending the annual OAC conference think may be a matter of perspective. By a show of hands, the vast majority believes current market conditions are comparable to the prior recession in 2001-03, yet few hands remained in the air when comparing now to the 1990-91 recession.

ADVICE FROM THE PROFESSOR: Linneman, who presented the keynote address during the OAC luncheon and conducted an on-stage interview with Cooper, says lenders aren’t likely to loosen their grip on capital availability until they regain their trust of developers, especially those behind the current condo overstock. “Capital has gone on strike,” Linneman told the audience. “Don’t cross the picket line.”

He advises waiting at least six months to approach financial institutions, allowing enough time for recent Federal Reserve interest rate cuts to take hold, and notes that CEO changes at those lenders might also help in the long run.

MORE ADVICE FOR DEVELOPERS: While open-air or “lifestyle” shopping centers are still favored by retail developers over indoor malls, some of them are becoming unnecessary and should be shelved, according to one executive.

Nearly 200 lifestyle centers across the country were promoted at ICSC’s popular spring convention in Las Vegas last May, all clamoring for the top tenants in their respective regions and communities.Those struggling to win leases should view that as a sign that they shouldn’t proceed with construction, says Mark Fallon, VP with Jeffrey R. Anderson Real Estate Inc. in Cincinnati. Retail developers are better off not wasting their money, regardless of how optimum their sites might be, he says.

“Do us all a favor and don’t go to Vegas,” Fallon remarked during a town hall meeting on lifestyle centers, drawing a rousing reaction from those in attendance.

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