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HOUSTON-Weingarten Realty’s Q1 2009 activities consisted of a continued push to maintain liquidity. During this time, the board of trust managers sliced dividends in half to $.25 per share, locked an interest rate on a $103 million debt commitment from a life insurance company and finished its sale of 32 million common shares of stock.

The cash is being used to pay down outstanding debts and possibly to buy back Weingarten’s conversion and regular bonds. Meanwhile, Weingarten’s executive vice president of asset management Johnny L. Hendrix said he saw hopeful signs that the retail environment could be stabilizing. “Sales to the retailers who occupy our kinds of shopping centers were up for the quarter, versus first quarter of 2008,” he said at the REIT’s Q1 2009 earnings conference call. “I’m encouraged by the retailers’ performances.”

Hendrix added that some retailers, such as Hobby Lobby and TJ Maxx, were coming back to the market and are looking for space. Though he acknowledged concern that bankruptcies were still likely to occur, “they’re not as prevalent so far as anticipated,” he commented.

Stephen C. Richter, executive vice president and chief financial officer said interest from potential tenants in vacated big boxes began in mid-January 2009. He said that while some are scheduled to open this year, but those who haven’t signed leases yet might find it difficult to open by October 2009, in time for the holidays. Those are the tenants who would likely open in early 2010, he explained.

For tenants such as Blockbuster, things are different. “It’s obvious they’re struggling,” Richter said. He acknowledged that Weingarten’s leasing staff is trying to work with the entertainment company, but said there would be some Blockbuster leases that likely wouldn’t be renewed. Still, he added, the space wouldn’t be difficult to backfill.

To fill the current vacancies, the leasing staff is talking to traditional retailers. They’re also working with somewhat non-traditional potential. tenants including a charter school and medical school. The cold calls, e-mails, direct mail and broker relationships are paying off as “we’re continuing to lease space, even in these challenging times,” Hendrix commented.

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