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An activist investor known for restructuring debt and forcing property companies to sell assets is targeting Chattanooga-based CBL Properties, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The Journal said that Michael Ashner has acquired 5.97 percent of CBL shares as of late August, with his firms accumulating 10.35 million shares at prices ranging from 80 cents to $1.16, the newspaper said, citing a stock-exchange filing.

It said Ashner is known for working in distressed commercial property investing and for restructuring debt. Also, he has successfully lobbied real-estate owners to sell properties, the Journal said on Tuesday.

CBL commented little on Ashner's stake in the company, but on Tuesday CBL touted that it has executed leases with entertainment users for about 825,000 square feet at more than a dozen properties as CBL transitions its portfolio to suburban town centers from traditional malls.

Ashner said in the story that he's not advocating a sale of the entire company and he sees value in CBL's properties, which include Hamilton Place and Northgate malls in Chattanooga.

"We are seriously hopeful that we can work together with management to exploit all the opportunities for shareholders that we see here," he told the Journal.

CBL's stock rose 4.55 percent on Tuesday, up 6 cents, to close at $1.38 per share on the New York Stock Exchange.

CBL said in the Journal story that it wouldn't comment on Ashner's stake except to say that it appreciated his "recognition of the long-term value creation opportunity of CBL's business."

The shares of the company, which has a portfolio of 108 properties totaling 68.2 million square feet across 26 states, have experienced a lot volatility over the past month or so.

Just last month, CBL said it planned to take steps to keep its shares listed on the NSYE after receiving notification it no longer complied with exchange's criteria to maintain an average closing share price of at least $1 over a consecutive 30 trading-day period.

But, since that time, the shares have jumped above the $1 per share mark, rising on Sept. 11 to $1.69 before falling back.

CBL is engaging in a redevelopment program of its properties, moving from apparel-based and traditional enclosed malls to suburban town centers with a more diverse tenant base.

Stephen Lebovitz, CBL's chief executive officer, told investors and analysts in a conference call last month that 86% of new mall leasing and 64% of total mall leasing this year has been non-apparel.

At Hamilton Place mall, CBL has started the biggest-ever revamp in the center's history with the demolition of the former Sears space into new retail, restaurant and office space.

On Tuesday, CBL said that it has executed leases with entertainment users for about 825,000 square feet. The new leases are located at more than a dozen properties, and all of the new stores are scheduled to open by 2021, including two that opened in early 2019 and four that will open by the end of the year, the company said.

"The consumer demand to add family-friendly entertainment at our market-dominant centers has increased dramatically over the last few years," said Lebovitz. "We are answering that demand by incorporating these exciting new uses into our properties as part of redevelopment projects or through the consolidation of in-line space."

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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