Chattanooga shopping center operator CBL reporting more customers, bounce-back from pandemic

Staff photo by Mike Pare / Shoppers enter Northgate Mall in Hixson. The center is owned and operated by Chattanooga-based CBL & Associates Properties Inc.

Shopping center developer and operator CBL Properties on Tuesday posted higher first quarter earnings compared to a year ago mostly due to declining interest payments related to its bankruptcy petition.

Still, the Chattanooga-based company said a bounce-back in the economy from the pandemic is benefiting its properties, which include both Hamilton Place and Northgate malls in Chattanooga.

"Customer traffic is returning to pre-pandemic levels and spending levels were certainly helped by stimulus checks and tax refunds," said CBL Chief Executive Stephen Lebovitz. "Leasing activity is picking up as sales and traffic levels improve. Rent collections have increased to 89% of gross rents and accounts receivable are decreasing as well."

Funds from operations, as adjusted per diluted share, was 34 cents for the first quarter of 2021, compared with 26 cents per share for the first quarter a year ago, the company reported.

Sales for the first quarter 2021 increased 12.5% as compared to the same period in 2020, according to CBL. But total portfolio same-center net operating income declined 17.2% for the latest quarter, CBL reported.

Portfolio occupancy as of March 31 was 85.4% compared with 89.5% as of March 31, 2020, the company said.

CBL's stock closed Tuesday at 10 cents per share, down 1.96% in over-the-counter trading.

CBL filed for bankruptcy protection Nov. 1 after the company was hit by the coronavirus pandemic along with the shift by many shoppers to online retailers.

The pandemic hit revenues at its centers due to last year's lockdown, store closings, and a slow return to face-to-face shopping.

Another major variance in the first quarter 2021 FFO, as adjusted, was a 13 cent per share of lower property net operating income. That included a 4 cents per share related to the estimate for uncollectable revenues, rent abatements and write-offs for past due rents related to tenants that are in bankruptcy or struggling financially, according to CBL.

Lebovitz said the company will two major non-retail openings in its portfolio this quarter, including a 135-room Aloft hotel opening at Hamilton Place in Chattanooga.

"Similarly, we have a deep opportunity set across our portfolio to create value and density at our existing centers by redeveloping former anchor buildings and utilizing parking lots and unimproved land," he said.

Lebovitz said CBL is "making major progress on our in-court restructuring The court process has not slowed down the rebound in our business, and we are working diligently towards our planned emergence later this year. We are excited for the fresh start this will mark and for CBL's bright future."

- Compiled by Mike Pare who may be reached at mpare@timesfreepress.com