Both upper and lower levels are crowded with shoppers on a recent Black Friday inside Hamilton Place mall.

Some 30 years ago, Chattanooga-based CBL & Associates Properties Inc. had developed about 15 malls since its creation in the late 1970s.

But, recalls former CBL executive James L. "Bucky" Wolford, none of those had been located in the shopping center developer's hometown.

"That makes a big difference. You don't want to make mistakes," says Wolford, talking about the construction of Hamilton Place mall, which became the company's flagship center when it opened in August 1987.

"It turned out very well," he says. "It's been a fantastic project."

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Former CBL & Associates Properties Inc. executive James L. "Bucky" Wolford
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CBL & Associates Properties Inc. Chairman Charles Lebovitz
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The Hamilton Place mall sign facing Interstate 75 announces the H&M store's arrival later this year.

Wolford, 70, a former partner in CBL, had worked with then-CBL Chief Executive Charles Lebovitz and other company officials to help raise the 1.2 million-square-foot mall that today draws about 2 million people annually, when including nearby stores.

Lebovitz, now CBL's chairman, had set the wheels in motion for the mall when, in 1982, former McCallie School and Vanderbilt University classmate Lou Conner called him about 200 acres of wooded land in East Brainerd.

Lebovitz remembers that Conner told him a company was interested in putting a shopping center on the site. Conner, then a Nashville lawyer, told Lebovitz that "'If anyone is going to build a shopping center on my family's property, it will be my old buddy,"' Lebovitz says.

He says the tract of land was owned by five members of the Conner family, and it took a year or two to gain their confidence to sell the site that makes up Hamilton Place mall.

Wolford, who handled mall development at CBL as a then-senior vice president, says that one of the keys to the project was obtaining access between the mall and nearby Interstate-75.

Also, he says, the company was able to attract the anchor department stores for the mall.

"You couldn't lease the smaller stores without the department stores," says Wolford, who left CBL and started his own development company in 1999, Wolford Development, which he still heads.

The businessman says the "phenomenal" success of the mall, and how it has spurred an array of new development in that area, wasn't entirely expected.

"We didn't see it being as successful as it was," he says. "We would have bought more property to develop."

While Hamilton Place was raised by CBL, it wasn't the first or even the second shopping center built in Chattanooga by family members or business partners of the principals of CBL.

Lebovitz says his family's development company had earlier opened Eastgate in 1962. At that time, the center was only half its eventual size and not enclosed. Later, the company teamed with the Osborne family and built the other half and enclosed it, Lebovitz says.

In 1972, Lebovitz says that company built Northgate Mall in Hixson on land originally assembled for a drive-in movie theater. It later sold Northgate Mall, but then CBL acquired it in 2011 for $11.5 million in cash.

In 1978, CBL & Associates Inc. was formed. In 1993, CBL became a real estate investment trust named CBL & Associates Properties Inc. and was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Over the years, CBL has developed into one of the nation's largest mall Real Estate Investment Trusts. CBL owns, holds interests in or manages more than 128 properties.