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LAS VEGAS-Communication may be one of the keys to helping retailers and developers cope with the current economic situation, said speakers at the first full day of the International Council of Shopping Centers’s RECon convention here. But that doesn’t mean that the downturn won’t take quite some time to work out.

The dramatic change in industry fortunes from last year’s event was noted by James E. Maurin, chairman of Covington, LA-based Stirling Properties, moderating a session at the Las Vegas Convention Center on how the crisis evolved and what lies ahead.

“A year ago, we knew we had some issues,” said Christopher Niehaus, a managing director of Morgan Stanley, New York City. “But in September, we experienced the collapse of the U.S. financial system.”

The credit and housing bubbles burst, hitting retail hard, while consumers reversed a period of low and negative savings.

“The consumer is going to be fairly muted for quite some time,” Niehaus said.

Unlike previous industry downturns, this current situation has several unique components: its worldwide reach, the lack of debtor-in-possession financing, and capital constraints, noted Charles B. Lebovitz, chairman of Chattanooga, TN-based CBL & Associates Properties.

“In the past, when CBL went to a lender, it wasn’t a question of getting the loan, but of the terms,” Lebovitz recalled.

Meanwhile, the closure of big boxes has had a dramatic affect on leasing. At year-end 2007, CBL had one vacant big box; at year-end 2008, the company had 50 empty boxes. The good news is that what financing is available is reasonably priced.

Companies today are looking at alternative uses for empty anchors, including educational facilities and home furnishings chains.

“How many golfers would like to plan in 30 mile-per-hour winds? That sums up what retailers are experiencing,” said Donald Wright, senior vice president of real estate and engineering of Safeway, Pleasonton, CA.

The goal now is to survive.

“Right now, we’re marching in place, keeping our heads above water, keeping our organization intact and maintaining our properties,” Lebovitz said.

The company cut its RECon-related booth costs by 60% by eliminating private office space and reducing staff at the show. Corporately, it has reduced capital expenditures and some staffing. No new projects are being started this year, though four under construction are being completed.

“It’s an ongoing process,” Lebovitz said. “We don’t think the worst is behind us.”

Meanwhile, business must still be conducted.

“We’re going back to the basics: cost control, leasing,” Maurin said. “There are plenty of deals to be made, they’re just harder to do.”

The key is communication.

“Absolutely overcommunicate,” Maurin advised.

“The communication piece is a big deal,” Wright agreed. “If a retailer is struggling, it’s important to talk to the landlord.”

But that doesn’t necessarily mean an automatic rent reduction or deferral, at least without a few strings attached.

“We’re spending more time working with the retailers and exploring ways to [create] a win/win situation,” Lebovitz said. “We ask for a quid pro quo.”

The consensus, Wright said, is that once retail hits bottom, the industry will stay there for a while, forcing all to re-examine their models. Meanwhile, financial system losses continue to rise, from $1.4 trillion in the IMF’s semi-annual survey in October to $2.7 trillion in its April 09 survey.

“Government is a part of the solution, and the repairing of the balance sheet of the banks will be helpful,” Niehaus said.

Still, there is no quick fix. Wright predicted that it might take three to five years to clear up oversupply.

“The heard of the matter is that we’re still in a bad situation,” Niehaus said. “The economy is built on credit. If that dries up, everything stops. We have a massive pig working through the python. We’re only halfway there and we still have a long way to go.”

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