Robert B. Pamplin is a media mogul of sorts in Portland, owner of a large cement company, a restaurant and a winery, among other companies that make up a wide-ranging portfolio that also includes most of main street in a tiny Central Oregon town.
Pamplin holds the keys to much of downtown Shaniko, a blip on the map and living ghost town 40 minutes northeast of Madras that’s so sleepy Google Maps, which shows street-level views of many streets in America, hasn’t bothered including downtown.
Pamplin had grand plans for his involvement in the rural town, but he faced opposition from some locals who successfully blocked his plans for redeveloping buildings and building new homes. In 2008 he put his Shaniko holdings on the market, leading to over eight years of mostly vacant buildings in the town’s core.
For reasons that are unclear, the wealthy businessman took his package of buildings off the market two weeks ago, a Pamplin representative told The Bulletin on Monday, opening the door to a new era of Pamplin involvement in Shaniko.
“He owns the hotel, the RV park, the warehouse, the ice cream parlor,” said Sandy Cereghino, a Vancouver, Washington, woman who for three decades has spent part of her time in Shaniko. “All the buildings there.”
When Pamplin began picking up developed and undeveloped parcels throughout Shaniko around 2000, he also bought the century-old wool shed that was central to Oregon’s wool exporters. He still owns 70 undeveloped acres on Shaniko’s eastern border.
Shaniko has been billing itself as a living ghost town, one whose residents portray the tough and persistent way of life from pioneer Oregon. It’s a six-block town owned largely by out-of-towners and home to a dwindling number of residents.
Pamplin is one of those absent owners, though he also donated money to help the town.
After picking up several of the historic buildings on Fourth Street just east of U.S. Highway 97 that carries cars speeding through town, Pamplin sought to revitalize the historic former boomtown.
His goal was to rebuild historic structures and build new homes. Those plans ran into opposition from some residents over the infrastructure needed to supply water to Pamplin’s buildings.
“The town was opposed to some of his plans, and there were some actual legal issues involved that had to be resolved,” said Susan Paterson, the city’s recorder. “Negotiations fell apart and that was that. So he closed the hotel the following year.”
“It just came down to, you know, do you let him have his way and it becomes Pamplinville? Or do you try to hold onto the city and keep the history?” Cereghino said. “That’s what it is. It’s history. The city voted no. The state told him no. He didn’t like that.”
Pamplin’s Shaniko Corp. put his properties in town up for sale in early 2008. For years, his buildings sat vacant, with no “for sale” signs in the windows but still listed as a package with a $3.2 million price tag.
That changed two weeks ago, Pamplin spokeswoman Wendy Lane Stevens said Monday. The decision to take the properties off the market is apparently so new, Stevens and another Pamplin representative weren’t initially aware of the decision Monday morning.
Stevens said Pamplin didn’t want to talk about his ownership of the vacant buildings in town.
Calls to nearly a dozen property owners — a third of the residents in town — weren’t returned.
Not every resident is happy about Pamplin owning — but not operating — much of downtown.
“It impacts the town, yes,” Paterson said. “Negatively, yes.”
The town’s population has stayed steady around 36 or 37 since 2010, according to Census figures. Paterson says the lifestyle isn’t for everyone, maybe not even herself.
Residents must travel to Maupin or Madras for necessities, including food, gas, doctors or entertainment.
“The older you get, the more you need. Doctors and dentists. (It’s) 40 miles from the nearest grocery store, 40 miles from the nearest McDonald’s or to go to a movie or anything else,” Paterson said.
But the town continues putting on events and welcoming to town any visitor who wants to spend time there. The annual Shaniko Days is the first weekend of August. The town isn’t putting on the antique car show this year. “We no longer have a person to organize a car show,” Paterson said.
“What it really needs is some co-op type of group that wants to come in and preserve history and not take over a town,” Cereghino said.
— Reporter: 406-589-4347,