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(Carl Cronan is editor of Real Estate Florida.)

ST. PETERSBURG, FL-Greg Sembler might have picked a better time to take the helm of the regional retail development company his father established in 1962. But then it turns out his predecessor in the job, Craig Sher, started his two-decade tenure in the midst of a recession as well.

“I gave up an 11-hour-a-day job for a 24-hour-a-day job,” Sembler says jokingly about his transition from vice chair last summer, at which time Sher took on a semi-retired role as executive chairman. “I am enjoying it. I stepped up and said I’m ready, and he graciously stepped aside.”

Sembler has literally grown up with the company, which now has 163 employees and claims more than 100 shopping centers and 140 freestanding retail stores to its credit. His father, Mel Sembler, has remained chairman while also serving as US ambassador to Italy, Australia and Nauru.

The Sembler Co. has numerous retail and mixed-use projects under way in Florida and Georgia, plus one each in Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia and Puerto Rico. The company is still in the running to redevelop General Motors’ massive manufacturing site in Doraville, GA.

“We were clipping along at seven or eight million square feet a year, and this year we’re probably going to complete three or four million,” Sembler says. “I don’t know how soon it’s going to ramp back up.”

Lately, Sembler’s efforts are focused on keeping its tenants in place, along with maintaining overall occupancy well above the 90% mark. For example, it launched an initiative this month to boost sales at its Oakleaf Town Center in Jacksonville, sending e-mails to more than 42,000 recipients living within a 10-mile radius and hosting events intended to attract customers.

“You’ve got to do what you can to keep them open and bring in traffic. We sell traffic, not space,” Sembler says. While the company offers plenty of statistics to show prospective tenants how many visitors each center gets in a given period, he says it’s difficult to gauge how many are going to two or more stores in the same trip.

Although Sembler prides itself in attracting the nation’s best-known and credit-worthy retailers, it has taken a few hits during the current recession, with large tenants such as Linens ‘n Things and Circuit City rejecting leases due to bankruptcy, sometimes within the same center. While there are prospects to backfill those boxes, which measure 20,000 to 30,000 square feet, he says, it’s more difficult to find replacements in markets where residential development is still catching up to centers.

Sembler is also enduring downward pressure on asking rents, which in normal times might be a dollar or two per square foot above nearby competitors. The CEO says it is now having to make deals at 20% to 30% lower rents than leases signed a year ago.

“The general mood now is tough. Everybody has a wait-and-see attitude and nobody wants to take a lot of risk on a new store,” he says. “We always try to stay competitive with our local markets, but we also have an eye to what people can afford to pay. We don’t want to put somebody in at a rate that they have no chance of doing enough business to support.”

The market is even tougher in Florida, which was once on the radar of practically every retailer nationwide, and even internationally, because of its strong population growth. But higher costs such as property insurance have reversed the trend, putting other Southeastern states ahead of the Sunshine State in new residents.

“For almost forever, we used to have about a thousand people a day moving in,” Sembler observes. He believes the state will recover eventually, especially as local governments shift their emphasis from halting development to promoting sustainable growth. Another important point: “Our weather is still the best in the country.”

Sembler says he still receives counsel from his politically famous father, who is now heavily involved in fundraising for George W. Bush’s presidential library. He says he is now responsible for shepherding the company’s relationships with retailers and bankers, built over decades, and keeps true to his father’s philosophy: “Do what you say you are going to do.”

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