Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, May 29, 2020

Retail spaces get fresh look

Developer Issa adapts old model to meet new tenant demands

Chattanooga developer Bassam Issa is posing for a photograph at a retail center on Gunbarrel Road. Dressed in a pink and purple checked shirt and gray slacks, he leans against the railing that encloses the outdoor dining area at Mission BBQ and smiles.

The diners enjoying their meal a few feet away might think Issa is just another businessperson with a casual but neat sense of fashion.

But a deeper truth about Issa lies in the subtle details that surround them. From the location of the development, which stands along Chattanooga’s busiest retail corridor, to the layout of the center, which contains two equally sized buildings that each house a pair of businesses, to the choice of tenants, everything is the outcome of Issa’s careful planning.

“Years ago, we would have 10 tenants in one center, with one or two important tenants in the endcaps,” Issa explains. “But now we spend money to split the buildings and give everyone an important space.”

Issa shifted his development strategies several years ago in response to the demands of tenants who no longer wanted to be hidden between other businesses along a retail facade.

“You have to read the indications for the future and stay ahead of the game to be successful; otherwise, you could die,” he says. “I’ve always had that sense of responsibility, even when I was a kid. I wouldn’t do anything unless I had thought about it once, twice or even three times.”

Issa employed the same approach at many of his other developments in the Chattanooga area, including an 85,000-square-foot retail complex on Battlefield Parkway in Fort Oglethorpe that contains several businesses in outparcels close to the road and a handful of major retailers farther back.

In fact, there are few places in Hixson, Ft. Oglethorpe and the Hamilton Place Mall area where one can stand and not see a retail development Issa had a hand in creating.

After more than 30 years in development in Chattanooga, Issa’s short list of the businesses that occupy his developments could pass for the long list of a less active competitor. Throughout the greater Chattanooga area, Issa has created spaces now occupied by Sun Tan City, Visionworks, Sleep Number, Verizon, Smokey Bones, First Watch, Marshalls, Hobby Lobby, Supercuts, Aspen Dental and more.

“We have a reputation with many national, regional and local brokers,” he explains. “They seek us out when they want to develop anything in Chattanooga. It makes our lives easy.”

A native of Palestine who moved to the U.S. at the age of 19, the 65-year-old Issa can trace the success of his development work back to 1978, when he and members of his family owned three small restaurants that catered to the office crowd downtown.

“We served breakfast and lunch and then closed in the afternoon,” he recalls. “We eventually wanted more volume, so we moved closer to Eastgate Mall.”

Issa experienced both successes and failures in the four years that followed. When he and his family saw that the businesses within the mall’s footprint were faring better than those on its outskirts, they moved their restaurants to the Northgate and Eastgate malls.

Building out these spaces inspired Issa to pursue development. “The malls gave us empty spaces, which forced us to learn construction,” Issa remembers. “With that in mind, we said, ‘If we can do this for ourselves, why not do it for others?’”

Issa demonstrated the value of planning ahead early in his development career. When he saw how businesses attached themselves to a Walmart, he cultivated a relationship with the retail giant that opened the door to developing its outparcels. An affiliation with Blockbuster Video followed, with Issa developing several of the chain’s stores in Hixson, Ft. Oglethorpe, Ooltewah and Dayton.

Although these deals were lucrative, he didn’t enter them with a short-term plan to make money; rather, he peered further down the road, to when the internet and streaming video would replace the brick-and-mortar outlets, and put a plan in motion.

“We sold all of the stores we developed except for the ones in major locations, like Highway 153, because we knew we would be able to lease those spaces for more money when Blockbusters left.

“And that’s what happened. We try not to be caught by surprise.”

Issa applied the same tactics years later when he saw a shift in the restaurant industry in Chattanooga. “We’re usually about five years ahead of our tenants,” he says. “When we saw that restaurants were the future, we changed what we were doing.

“You have to always be thinking. Maybe it was the conditions where I grew up, or maybe it’s in my DNA, but I have always been like this.”

The environment in which Issa grew up steered him to the U.S. Although he loves Palestine, he says it would have been difficult for him to attend college there, so he followed his uncle and brother to Chattanooga.

After settling in, Issa studied electrical engineering at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and worked full time to support himself.

Here again, Issa tells a story of building his life one brick at a time, with each block providing support for the next one.

After a brief stint at The Read House, Issa worked nights and weekends at a local Holiday Inn, where he voluntarily took care of the night auditing and accounting. When the manager quit, the hotel promoted Issa based on what he’d learned.

This tripled Issa’s income overnight, allowing him to pay for school, buy a car and rent an apartment.

“The blessing of God led me to the United States and especially to Chattanooga,” Issa, a Muslim, says. “I’m sure I would have worked hard everywhere, but God opened the door for me to be here, so I was always in the right place at the right time. As long as I did my part, God did His part.”

Issa eventually went to work for Shoney’s in a bid to make more money. However, as he helped to manage one of the company’s restaurants and learned the ins and outs of the industry, he earned more than a bigger paycheck; he also learned that his future was not in engineering but in running his own businesses.

“After college, I would have earned $26,000 as an engineer, and I was already making that much as a night manager. So I said, ‘Business is the way to make a better future.’”

Although Issa was no longer in school, he still burned the proverbial candle at both ends – and then found new ends to burn when that was no longer enough. Even after he began making progress as a developer, he continued to work at his family’s restaurants.

This resulted in many stress-filled years, but also gave him a few comical anecdotes.

“I would always get calls to negotiate a lease in the middle of lunch,” he says with a laugh. “One time, I was arguing with Dollar Tree about rental rates while I was at the drive-thru window. I was saying, ‘12 dollars a square foot,” and he was saying, ‘No, 10’ while I was telling the cooks to give me two orders of fries. The Dollar Tree guy didn’t know what I was talking about.”

Issa says he cherishes those days and every hour of work, as it was part of the journey that led him to where he is today. “There are many roads in life, and where you end up depends on which road you choose and how hard and fast you walk down it,” he says.

As Issa grew older, he began to think more about the faith of his youth. Although he says he has never wavered in his Muslim beliefs, he had filled his years with work, and he wanted to focus more on God and the local Islamic community.

“There were no mosques when I came to the U.S., and I worked all the time, so I wasn’t as devoted as I wanted to be,” he says. “But as I grew older and became financially secure, I said to myself, ‘Life is not all about money.’

“Every chapter in the Quran covers two things - being a believer and doing good deeds. To be on the right path, you have to do both. You cannot just be a believer. So, I wanted to start doing good deeds.”

The shift in Issa’s heart inspired him to spearhead the creation of the Islamic Center of Greater Chattanooga, which contains a school and a mosque under a single roof.

“You can rent a room and call it a mosque, and you can pray at home,” he says. “But the Muslim children who are born here are not going to learn about their religion unless they’re in an atmosphere of not just reading the Quran but also living it.”

That said, Issa didn’t want the school to be only about religion; he also wanted the students to receive a quality education. So, the school started small, initially offering only kindergarten and first grade and then adding one grade each year. It’s currently up to the eighth grade.

The number of students has grown as well. Eighty youth and 12 teachers now occupy its classrooms, including nine Christian instructors who teach math, science and other subjects. “We’re an equal opportunity employer,” Issa says. “Even though it’s a Muslim school, we think only about how we can best raise the kids to be great citizens.”

Issa is able to devote a generous measure of his time to the school – where he serves as president of the board – now that two of his three sons have joined the family business. He says he taught Amin and Tarik everything he knows, which has allowed him to place many of his weightier responsibilities on their younger backs while he meets with the public and handles the occasional negotiation.

Issa also continues to align his business with his predictions of the future – including how the coronavirus pandemic will affect the economy.

“We’re forming a different model based on restaurants and essential businesses,” he says. “People can’t live without restaurants, and most of the restaurants that have a drive-thru stayed open, so we’re going to do as many drive-thrus as possible as we build new locations.”

In keeping with this plan, the Panera restaurant his company is developing at the old Firestone auto center next to Northgate Mall and the neighboring Buddy’s Bar-B-Q will both have drive-thrus.

Issa has also purchased the former home of J.C. Penny at Northgate Mall and is close to closing on the old Sears, though he doesn’t say how he intends to utilize those spaces. Whatever he decides, it will be the outcome of careful planning.

 “We want to make sure we’re always ahead of the curve,” he says.

Issa says another benefit of having less work to do is being able to spend more time with his wife of over 30 years, Amani Issa. He says she has made his life easy, and that her patience and constant smile have made him happy.

“She’s the true secret of my success,” he beams. “We’re more than just husband and wife; we’re very close friends. We never stop talking when we’re together. It’s like we just met.”

In addition to conversing nonstop, Issa and his wife love to travel. Although COVID-19 has temporarily halted their excursions, he’s looking forward to visiting Jerusalem and possibly Japan and Asia once they’re able to.

Issa, who grew up in a community in which Muslims and Christians lived side-by-side and children of both religions played and attended school together, enjoys these trips – not just for the experiences they provide but also because they remind him of how small the world is.

“We’re all one little village,” he says. “As much as we love our country, when it comes to human beings, everyone is the same. No one is better than anyone else, whether you’re worth a billion dollars or you don’t have a penny.

“You should have the same respect for both individuals and treat everyone like you want them to treat you. And when you do that, you’ll be happy.”