Harry Price, a developer, preservationist, history buff and a man who saw downtown Napa’s potential before most and put the riverfront on the map as a destination for both locals and visitors, died early Tuesday morning.

Price, who leaves behind his wife Linda, was 77. The cause of death was not announced, although it’s believed that Price died in his sleep.

Price shunned the spotlight, yet that’s exactly what he helped shine on Napa’s city center as downtown grew to what it is today.

Before his central role in downtown’s renaissance, Price was a successful commercial real estate developer, who built warehouses in American Canyon and Solano County.

He was an attorney by trade who also loved history. When Price saw the Napa Mill property at the south end of Main Street falling apart and facing toxic cleanup issues, he wasn’t deterred.

Instead, Price and his team labored for years to shore up and clean up the downtown complex, in the process creating a tourist and lodging destination — Napa Mill and its Napa River Inn — where there had never been one before.

With a vision for what downtown Napa could be, he added a club with live music. When flood control came to Napa, Price and others lead a community effort to redesign the flood wall and create a promenade at the river’s edge.

Price also had a vision for commercial space in downtown Napa, building the Napa Square office building at 955 Franklin St. After Napa Square was damaged in the 2014 earthquake, Price and partners made yet another major investment in the property to repair it.

One of Napa’s biggest boosters

“It’s a big shock,” said Larry Nelson, one of Price’s partners at his business CDI Companies of Napa. “It’s hard to come to grips with.”

The two had worked together for more than 30 years.

“It’s just devastating,” said Nelson of Price’s sudden death. “He loved Napa a lot.”

Nelson said that Price arrived at the CDI offices in Napa Square on Monday as usual. “He came to work yesterday and we had a good day,” said Nelson on Tuesday. The two colleagues even had their usual lunch together.

“Then we went over our plans for continuing the company” and current projects, said Nelson. “It’s almost like he had a premonition.”

Napa Mayor Jill Techel used the word “legendary” to describe Price.

“Harry was amazing in the things he did to move Napa forward,” Techel said. “He believed in Napa when there weren’t many people who were investing in Napa.”

His work at the Napa Mill brought businesses and restaurants to Napa “that are thriving and that’s part of Harry’s legacy.”

“He had the vision,” said Techel.

The river walk area behind the Napa Mill wouldn’t have been there if it wasn’t for Price, said Techel. “He was instrumental in making that happen.”

Price’s Napa Square project brought popular restaurants such as Norman Rose and Oenotri to Napa.

“He always had that ability to bring in something special unique and wonderful” the mayor said.

She recalled how Price backed an effort to stop the original Copia building from becoming commercial office space when the cultural center failed. Instead, it became the Culinary Institute of America’s downvalley home.

“We’re very lucky to have a man like Harry invested in Napa on so many levels,” Techel said.

Nothing can prepare Napa for the loss of Price, said Sara Brooks, general manager of the Napa River Inn.

“He was always the visionary,” she said. “Even if you didn’t always agree with him he was always trying to do the right thing.”

“It’s one of those losses that I don’t think any of us will get over. Every staff member at the Napa Mill will feel this loss.”

Napa Riverfront developer Mike DeSimoni Sr. said he was shocked to hear of Price’s death. “My heart is broken,” said DeSimoni Sr.

“It’s unbelievable. He was a good person for Napa, I’ll tell you that.”

“I have so much respect for his vision” at the Napa Mill and throughout Napa, DeSimoni said. “There were a lot of things he had to overcome” at the Mill property, he said. “It was not easy.”

In the end, “his imagination with that piece of property” turned it into something spectacular, said DeSimoni, adding, “He did a good job. We’ll miss him.”

In an email, Napans John and Dorothy Salmon described Price as “one of Napa’s true heroes and treasures, a risk taker with a heart of gold and an exquisite sense of quiet diplomacy.”

“We could always count on Harry to do what was needed to make the right things happen, with the community foremost in mind. While many recognize Harry Price’s critical, persistent role in the evolution of the city of Napa from flood control to his iconic Napa River Inn, fewer know how many folks in need found a helping hand from Harry. He will be missed by all and his ‘always on the mark’ West Texas humor will never be forgotten.”

‘His heart was golden’

“What a wonderful man,” said Johnny Apodaca, founder of Serenity Homes of Napa Valley. Price was a director at the nonprofit for 15 years.

“His heart was golden. He helped thousands of people in our community,” with jobs to housing and more. “He had a special place in his heart for people who are less fortunate.”

“He was kind of like a father and a friend all in one to me,” said Apodaca. “I loved him very much.”

Apodaca said he saw Price just last week at the General Store.

“I said, ‘When are we going to retire?’”

Price replied, “What would we do, Johnny?”

Then “I just looked at him, and I finally told him I loved him and he looked at me and said ‘I love you too, Johnny.’”

Jeff Doran, another Napa developer, said Price “set the bar pretty high for all of us.”

“I’ve gone to him for some advice and I’ve also gone toe to toe with him on some pretty tough projects,” he recalled.

Price could be tough, “but he had such a big heart.”

“He was a mentor to so many people. He set such a great example.”

Price’s projects at Napa Square and the Napa Mill both required “a tremendous leap of faith,” Doran said. “He certainly had the vision and definitely always put Napa first.”

When he was chairman of the Napa Valley Community Foundation board, Price led the effort to hire Terence Mulligan as its president.

“He was my coach and sounding board those first years I was here,” said Mulligan.

“I don’t think it’d be an overstatement to say what Robert Mondavi was to viticulture, he was to developing the vibrant downtown Napa that all of us enjoy now,” said Mulligan.

Price would never want to take credit, “but that was the role he played in downtown Napa. That’s just how he was. He was such an amazing person and a pillar of community life in the valley.”

Napa commercial broker Joe Fischer described Price as “a amazing force in the transformation of Napa’s downtown. Harry’s has obvious and not so obvious fingerprints all over town, as a developer and also as a champion for people in need.

“He was one of the few people that had the guts to invest and risk capital when very few people saw an opportunity,” said Fischer.

Price’s legacy

According to the CDI website, Price had been in real estate development since 1964 in capacities as attorney, mortgage bank executive, real estate broker and developer, involving many projects in several states.

Besides the Napa Mill and Napa Square, Price also developed Green Island Industrial Park I through IV in Napa County.

Price previously served on several nonprofit boards in Napa including the Opera House, Napa Valley Economic Development Corp., Friends of the Napa River, Sustainable Napa Valley, the Arts Council of Napa Valley and the Napa Valley Community Foundation and Serenity Homes of Napa Valley.

“We know that his work and vision touched everyone in Napa and made Napa a better place,” said Price’s son, Adam Price. “He will be greatly missed.”

Details of an event to celebrate Harry will be forthcoming, said Adam Price.

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Business Editor

Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.