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Sherwood "Woody" Weiser, Hotel Developer and Civic Leader, Dies at 80

An Industry Icon and Original Class Act, His Legacy - Family, Community and Miami's First 5-Star Hotel

By Elaine Walker and Hannah Sampson, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Aug. 02, 2011--Sherwood "Woody" Weiser, a hotel developer and operator who became one of Miami's leading civic and arts supporter, died Monday from cancer. He was 80.

Even South Floridians who didn't know Weiser benefitted from his love of community and his passion for hotels. Over four decades, he and partner Donald Lefton built or managed at least 100 hotels and casinos around the U.S., in the Bahamas, Canada and Mexico through The Continental Companies. Locally they were best known for building Miami's Grand Bay Hotel, the city's only five-star hotel, and more recently, the Ritz-Carlton on Key Biscayne.

Weiser was long a key player in Miami's civic and charitable organizations, including the Miami Art Museum, National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, University of Miami and the New World Symphony.

"This man was truly an icon in the City of Miami," said Lefton, whose friendship with Weiser dates back to high school in Cleveland, Ohio. "Nobody didn't like Woody Weiser. Everybody knew him and if they didn't know him, they knew of him."

But his most lasting civic legacy may be the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. When enthusiasm and community support for the long-planned project flagged, Weiser kept pushing. There wasn't a day in 17 years that he didn't do something to move the project forward, he told Arsht Center board chairman Mike Eidson last year.

Weiser was directly responsible for securing $80 million in donations; an auditorium inside it is named for the him and wife Judy.

"There would be no building without Woody and Judy," said Adrienne Arsht, who contributed $30 million to the center.

The Weisers' involvement went far beyond writing checks and convincing others to do so.

"He and Judy were emmeshed in every detail," said Lin Arison, an arts patron and widow of Carnival Cruise Lines founder Ted Arison, a close friend of Weiser. Carnival donated $10 million to the Performing Arts Center. "They were stoic and they never gave up."

Recent years have also brought advancement of two other major projects Weiser supported: the newly opened New World Center and the Miami Art Museum, currently under construction.

"The community is so much better off in Miami-Dade County because Woody Weiser lived here for the last 40 or so years and he contributed so much," said Aaron Podhurst, an attorney and chairman of Miami Art Museum. The two became friends after Podhurst did some legal work for Weiser shortly after he arrived in South Florida from Cleveland in 1969.

Even during his illness, Weiser remained involved in community and business matters. As recently as last week, he participated in calls about major business deals. When he couldn't go out to business meetings, he had people come to his Coral Gables apartment.

In May, he managed to play a little golf with friends during the "Woody Classic," an annual golf trip organized by Weiser and his son Brad that this year took the group to South Carolina. Early this summer, he and his wife took the entire family -- including seven grandchildren -- on a vacation in Turks & Caicos, where they enjoyed a week of sailing, swimming and nightly dinners.

Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the Knight Foundation, marveled at Weiser's good spirits during a lunch about a week and a half ago.

"He was strong, he was optimistic, he was talking about possible new treatments. He was upbeat and hopeful," Ibargüen said. "But he also said, 'You know, if it doesn't work, I'm still happy and grateful about the great life I've had.' That truly was the way he was, he just wouldn't complain."

Family remained Weiser's priority until the end. Though he was placed in hospice care last month, he still went with a wheelchair to watch one of his grandsons play baseball in Homestead.

Before moving to Miami, Weiser and Lefton practiced law together in Cleveland. They represented ITT, traveling around the U.S., Canada and Europe negotiating purchases, culminating with the 1967 acquisition of Sheraton Corporation.

The partners decided it was time to get out of practicing law and get into the hotel business.

"We decided, let's do something we love, and do it in a place we love," Lefton said.

They purchased the Sheraton Beach Resort at 194th and Collins Avenue, then began developing hotels. Their first in Miami was the Sheraton River House at Miami International Airport.

Over the years they developed lodgings for brands including Hampton Inn, Marriott, Omni and Carnival Hotels, an offshoot of the cruise line. When they decided to build the Grand Bay Hotel in Coconut Grove, people thought they were crazy.

"Everybody said, 'You can't do a deluxe hotel down here; Miami can't justify it,' " Lefton said. "We felt Miami was becoming a far more sophisticated market. Sometimes you have to just go with your intuition."

Shortly after opening in 1983, the hotel's popularity soared, playing host over the years to Madonna, Luciano Pavarotti and Michael Jackson. Regine's nightclub on the 13th floor -- a members only club that attracted an elite crowd -- was said to sell more champagne than any other establishment in the United States.

In 1987 the Grand Bay was the only hotel south of Palm Beach to win a coveted fifth star from Mobil travel inspectors -- a feat that hasn't been repeated since. Both Weiser and Lefton watched in disgust in recent years as the property got downgraded under new owners and finally condemned.

"They were ahead of their time," said Stuart Blumberg, retired president and CEO of the Greater Miami & the Beaches Hotel Association. "Everything they touched was class. And I think that's the word I would use in remembering Woody -- he was class."

Weiser and Lefton sold the Grand Bay in 1997 as part of broader $485 million deal with Patriot American Hospitality that included multiple properties and its hotel management operations. They focused on new projects including the Ritz-Carlton in Key Biscayne.

As his business grew, so did Weiser's charitable efforts. He was honored for civic contributions by many organizations, include the American Red Cross and the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

In 1988 he became a trustee at the University of Miami and a senior trustee in 2009. Flags on the UM campus were flown at half-staff on Monday.

"The passing of Woody Weiser, a distinguished member of our Board of Trustees, leaves a huge void in civic and University leadership," UM President Donna E. Shalala said in a written statement. "He was a man of unmatched generosity, thoughtfulness, and grace.''

Weiser is survived by his wife; three sons, Brad, Warren (Jill) and Doug (Lynda); and seven grandchildren. Services will be Friday, Aug. 5 at 11 am at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Boulevard. In lieu of flowers the family requests donations be made to the Arsht Center or to the University of Miami.

Miami Herald staffer Jane Wooldridge contributed to this report.


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