Up to the challenge: Longtime developer Bassam Issa likes Chattanooga's 'size and flavor'

Staff photo by Tim Barber/ Bassam Issa surveys his latest project, taking charge of the former Firestone property adjacent to Northgate Mall.
Staff photo by Tim Barber/ Bassam Issa surveys his latest project, taking charge of the former Firestone property adjacent to Northgate Mall.

Hailing from Jerusalem, Bassam Issa came to Chattanooga in 1973 for college. He stayed in the Scenic City and today is a well-known office and shopping center developer who lauds Chattanooga for its size and flavor.

"It's a small, boutique city," Issa says. "You can be anyplace in 20 to 30 minutes."

But the city's people are the most important factor that convinced him to stay, he says.

"I love the city because of its people," says the 65-year-old businessman, who has been long involved with Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga. "I've gotten to know a lot of people. It's a good environment."

Issa and his ANT Group have put up a slew of buildings in Hixson, East Brainerd and other areas. ANT are the initials of the first names of sons Amin, Nader and Tarek, who are partners in the real estate company.

Most recently, Issa essentially leased up the former Kmart building on Highway 153 in Hixson, which he redeveloped into a Gabe's, Ollie's Bargain Outlet, and E.C. Barton & Co. with a Texas Roadhouse restaurant out front.

Issa last year purchased the former Firestone auto center next to Northgate Mall. That site, which is now demolished, will hold a new Panera restaurant, which will relocate from the opposite side of the mall parking lot, as well as other eateries, Issa said.

Last October, Issa was part of a joint venture with businessman John Woods, the chief executive officer at asset manager Southport Capital in the city, and mall owner CBL Properties, to buy the long vacant J.C. Penney store at Northgate.

The 173,000-square-foot J.C. Penney space, which has been vacant since it closed in 2014, has the second-largest footprint at the mall behind Sears, which is also vacant. The development group wants to breathe life into the space by attracting new retail, office or entertainment uses, they said.

Issa says he likes the development field, even though he holds a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

"I like the challenge of solving puzzles whether it's the learning side or actual construction and the challenge of the site," he says.

In addition, Issa says, he likes the idea of creating jobs for the Chattanooga area.

"It gives me satisfaction," he says.

But, early on, his career was rooted in the attraction of the restaurant business. He and a brother developed the Glen-Gene restaurants in 1980, Issa says.

As for the future, he says, he has a lot on his plate with a half dozen new projects in development.

"We think the economy will stay good," Issa says. "You can always work and stay busy, even in slow times."

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