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Werner Escher, credited with transforming South Coast Plaza, dies at 85

Werner Escher, a longtime South Coast Plaza executive credited with transforming the luxury Costa Mesa shopping center into a world-class destination, has died.

The Newport Beach resident, who had been the center’s executive director of domestic and international markets, died Friday after a brief illness, South Coast Plaza officials said. He was 85.

In an internal statement sent to South Coast Plaza employees Monday, David Grant, the center’s general manager, said Escher “was instrumental in bringing the world to South Coast Plaza and bringing South Coast Plaza to a global audience. His efforts over the years helped make South Coast Plaza a renowned international destination.”

Grant said Escher embodied the best of the center “with his instinctive grasp of diplomacy, his charming demeanor, his work ethic, his focus on great customer service.”

Debra Gunn Downing, a South Coast Plaza spokeswoman, added: “Werner personified the best of South Coast Plaza and was larger than life. He focused on excellence, was adept at navigating diplomatic issues and made friends all over the world while promoting South Coast Plaza. He was loyal and dedicated, spending more than half of his life working for the company.”

Escher, who played football at UCLA in the 1950s, started at South Coast Plaza as its public relations director in 1968, one year after the center opened.

Before that, he had ambitions of becoming a teacher. In addition to attaining his bachelor’s degree at UCLA, Escher earned a teaching credential and a master’s degree there.

He also was a reporter for a Beverly Hills newspaper and a marketing director in the aerospace industry.

In his first few years on the job at South Coast Plaza, Escher organized an Alaskan festival that included a race with wheeled dog sleds.

It impressed the Orange County Board of Supervisors, which declared an “Alaska Week in Orange County,” Escher wrote in a piece published in the Los Angeles Times in 1971.

He also wrote that large regional shopping centers — then a new concept — “are providing a symbol of identity for the otherwise formless sprawl of suburbia. Seats of city governments would agree that most of them also are providing a healthy source of revenue.”

That revenue has always been important to Costa Mesa City Hall, which in 2014 took in about $14 million annually in sales taxes from South Coast Plaza alone. That was noted during a City Council meeting that year, when officials gave Escher a ceremonial oversize check.

Escher said at the time that South Coast Plaza has been happy to see Costa Mesa evolve from “Goat Hill” into the City of the Arts, its official motto.

It now has “the art of dining, the art of fashion [and] the art of theater,” he said.

In 1977, during the center’s 10th anniversary and an expansion period, Escher told The Times that customer service was king at South Coast Plaza, which he always refused to call a “mall.”

“We attempt to bring shopping to Orange County in this unique way so that when people think of shopping, they think of South Coast Plaza,” Escher said. “And they think of it as California’s most important quality shopping center.”

In 2004, Escher helped trademark the center as “The Ultimate Shopping Resort.” The effort took two years.

“If you look at the travel destination we’ve become, we’re more than just a mall,” he said in a news release at the time. “Without being arrogant or elite, we really feel that ‘shopping resort’ defines the difference between us and others.”

Escher was a frequent world traveler, with a particular focus on China and Japan in recent years.

“Werner is considered to be of celebrity status in China that few others can claim,” Grant said in a statement.

In 2013, Escher was awarded a Peace through Commerce Medal from the International Trade Administration.

At the time of his death, South Coast Plaza’s annual sales were approaching $2 billion.

Paulette Lombardi-Fries, president of Travel Costa Mesa, called Escher a “warm and caring man with a wonderful sense of humor.” Escher was an advisor on the organization’s board.

“He was a marketing pioneer and clearly understood that shopping was one of the most popular activities a tourist would engage in,” Lombardi-Fries said in a statement. “Werner’s passion and enthusiasm was contagious as he spent his career educating both domestic and international markets. He was the tourism voice of South Coast Plaza and advocate for the ultimate shopping destination in Costa Mesa.”

Escher is survived by his wife, Diane, daughter Sally Niebuhr and her husband, Don; son Erik Escher and his wife, Kathy; and five grandchildren.

Plans for a public memorial service are pending. South Coast Plaza management is accepting cards, which will be forwarded to Escher’s family.

Instead of flowers, Escher’s family asks that donations be made in his name to the Then Now Forever Fund, which supports UCLA football athletes.

bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @BradleyZint

Copyright © 2017, Daily Pilot

UPDATES

5:50 p.m. Jan. 10: This article was updated with additional details about Werner Escher's life, information about memorial donations, and with the names of his surviving family members.

This article was originally published on Jan. 9 at 5:45 p.m.

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