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As a real estate developer, Merritt Sher wasn’t interested in retail and hospitality buildings that serve a purpose and bring in dollars, but in ones that transform communities, charm and inspire.

The heart of Healdsburg’s h2hotel and Hotel Healdsburg were among the projects that earned Sher status as a visionary — one interviewer dubbed him “the philosopher of place.”

Sher, a lover of Sonoma County and a longtime resident of Ross in Marin County, died March 4 following a long run of failing health. He was 78.

The New Jersey native demonstrated his entrepreneurial and design genius when he advised Bed, Bath & Beyond to go with oversized stores, when he played a leading role in the rebirth of Oakland’s Jack London Square and when he and his partners created two hip, happening, highly alluring hotels on the fringe of Healdsburg’s central plaza.

Healdsburg newsman Ray Holley wrote that Sher once told him, “I knew the hotel (Hotel Healdsburg) would change Healdsburg, but Healdsburg also changed me.”

Sher cherished spending time in Healdsburg with daughter Circe Sher, an executive with Piazza Hospitality, operator of Hotel Healdsburg, h2hotel and the Spoonbar and Pizzando restaurants.

Endlessly creative, Merritt Sher authored a book on business, “10 Birds with One Stone,” and whipped up an entire collection of instructive aphorisms, including “Conventional wisdom is the opposite of common sense,” “Spreading ideas increases velocity, which creates prosperity” and “The middle of nowhere properly positioned is the center of everywhere.”

Sher served as chief executive of the real estate development firm Metrovation, formerly Terranomics Development. Among its projects across the nation were the Healdsburg hotels, Loehmann’s 5 Points Plaza in Huntington Beach, 280 Metro Center in Colma, Crossroads in Bellevue, Washington, The Corner in Falls Church, Virginia, and several buildings in Red Bank, New Jersey.

Sher personally invested in or advised several major retailers, including The Gap, Pacific Sunwear, Tilly’s surf shop, Stacks and Stacks and the former Rainbow Records.

He was born June 21, 1939, in New Jersey. After high school he came to California, enrolling first at Menlo College and then San Francisco State College. In a Russian foreign policy class, his eyes met those of Pam Stremel.

She remembers, “I saw this good-looking guy in the back. He asked me out the next day. Here was this spiffy-looking guy, driving a brand new Corvette convertible. The car and Merritt took my breath away.”

They would marry, have three children and work together on the design of Hotel Healdsburg.

After graduating from San Francisco State, Sher earned a law degree at Hastings College of Law. He practiced as an attorney for a year before switching to real estate development.

An eager traveler, Sher would recount the time he boarded the first British Airlines flight into Tbilisi, capital of the Republic of Georgia, to discover he was the sole passenger. Then there was time he and Pam took their kids to Hawaii and missed the flight home.

Asked what he liked most about the family visit to the islands, Sher replied, “Trying to get out of Hawaii.”

In addition to his wife in Ross and daughter in Healdsburg, Sher is survived by daughter Lacey Sher of Oakland, son Justin Sher of Woodside, sister Abby Sher of Pacific Palisades, brother Ron Sher of Whidbey Island, Washington, and two grandchildren.

A public memorial service and celebration of Sher’s life is at 2 p.m. March 25 at Hotel Healdsburg.

His family suggests memorial donations to Russian Riverkeeper at https://russianriverkeeper.org/donate or P.O. Box 1335, Healdsburg 95448.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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