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BIRMINGHAM, AL-Thomas H. Lowder returned to the helm at Colonial Properties Trust as CEO a month ago, with plans to steer the locally based REIT through a troubled economy. Lowder unveiled five priorities at the company’s Q4 2008 earnings conference call on February 3.

The priorities focused on strengthening the balance sheet, improving liquidity, addressing near-term debt maturities in 2009 and 2010, reducing overhead and postponing developments. With the first point, “the best way to do this is to de-leverage the company. One way to do this is to sell assets, and we plan to do that,” Lowder commented.

He went on to say that the $116.9 million impairment charge taken will help in that it will increase the company’s opportunity for sales. On February 2, the company sold its recently-completed Colonial Promenade Fultondale for $29.9 million and a market cap rate of 8.5%. Colonial provided seller financing to the tune of $16.9 million for a term of five years and a 5.6% interest rate. Lowder said three other retail centers, valued at $100 million in total, are under contract and should close in Q1 2009. In addition, “we’re pushing to accelerate our exit from the for-sale residential area,” he said, adding that he hoped to be out of the condominium conversion business in 24 months.

Meanwhile, Colonial Properties’ developments have ground to a halt, including the Colonial Pinnacle Nord du Lac, a 1 million-square-foot retail development that broke ground last summer in Covington, LA. Lowder said he made the decision to shut down development on the center because of concerns over leasing slowdowns on the retail side and the resulting inability of the company to meet its leasing goals. “It didn’t make sense to continue at this point,” he commented.

The development shutdown, in turn, has led to a 10% reduction in Colonial Properties’ workforce. On top of that, wages of employees earning $75,000 a year and higher have been frozen.

Despite the down economy, Lowder, who has seen his share of downturns, did his best to be optimistic, citing Colonial Properties’ strong position in sunbelt states, which are somewhat stronger. “We have a belief in the sunbelt,” he said. “And we have the liquidity to get us through this down cycle.”

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