LAS VEGAS — For David Lukes, chief operating officer of Kimco Realty Corp., determining whether or not a retail property on the selling block is a good deal, boils down to one simple question: Is the rent roll below market or above market?

“I think it’s more important than your specific net operating income, more important than occupancy, and more important than the creditworthiness of the tenants,” stated Lukes during Retail Trends 2009, a lively panel discussion that took place Monday evening in conjunction with RECon, the annual convention of the International Council of Shopping Centers.

“If you look at a property and say to yourself, ‘I will smile if one of these tenants leaves in three years,’ that’s a lot better than being nervous if a tenant leaves because you can’t replace the rent,” explained Lukes.

Several hundred shopping center professionals descended on the Renaissance Hotel in the desert to hear Lukes and other retail experts share the good, the bad and the ugly during an economic overview and panel discussion sponsored by Marcus & Millichap Real Estate Investment Services. It was the 14th year Marcus & Millichap hosted the event.

When Kimco talks, audiences listen. A real estate investment trust (NYSE: KIM), Kimco owns and operates the largest portfolio of neighborhood and community shopping centers in North America. At the end of the first quarter, the company based in New Hyde Park, N.Y., owned interests in 1,476 retail properties totaling 155 million sq. ft. of leasable space across 45 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico and South America.

With a U.S. economy that is likely to be in an inflationary environment three to five years from now, savvy buyers who scoop up retail assets at below-market rents will have a rock-solid cushion, stated the young executive who directs the day-to-day activities of the company’s shopping center business.

The beauty of that investment approach, said Lukes, is that even if a retail tenant is currently leasing space at 40% below the market rent and has several lease options in his favor, the situation is hardly a permanent condition. “Of all the properties that we own from the 1960s and 1970s, I can count on one hand the number of anchor tenants that are still in those properties.”

Myriad business and economic factors frequently alter a retailer’s real estate strategy, and the changes can come suddenly. “Their prototype changes. They either have to get bigger, they have to get smaller, they relocate, or they go out of business,” said Lukes. “When lightning strikes, that cushion between below-market and at-market rent is big enough that you never have to worry about [debt] coverage ratios.”

At Tuesday’s close of trading on the New York Stock Exchange, Kimco’s stock price was pegged at $11.05 per share, down nearly 77% from its 52-week high of $47.80.