Shaniko residents scramble to find food, lodging for tourists
Residents of Shaniko were shocked recently to see a For Sale sign posted on the Shaniko Hotel.
The hotel, owned by Portland billionaire Dr. Robert Pamplin Jr., was put up for sale following a drawn-out disagreement with the city council over the use of water from his private well.
"It happened pretty fast and I'm kind of shocked," said Shaniko city councilman Byron Jacobus. "(Pamplin) invested in the town and has done an awful lot for the community. Why he pulled out, I don't know. But sitting down at a table (to talk) is better than dropping the hat and walking away," he added.
Pamplin had drilled a well on his property near the old wool barn in February 2007 and proposed constructing a 25- to 30-house subdivision there a few months later, purportedly to provide more employees for the hotel and other town businesses, and to enliven it with more residents. Shaniko currently has a population of 40, and 10 to 12 seasonal businesses.
Besides property in the old historic town of Shaniko, Pamplin also owns R2 Farms with some 60,000 acres of cattle ranching land between Madras and Shaniko, Columbia Empire Farms based in Sherwood, Ore., a chain of Christian radio stations, and The Portland Tribune Newspaper and several other Portland-area community newspapers. He has an interest in history, and has a private museum at his home with a collection of Civil War and Chinese artifacts.
Pamplin's purchase of the Shaniko Hotel and other properties in 2000, and his donations of multiple thousands of dollars for restoration projects had been a shot in the arm for the community -- until the visions of the townspeople and Pamplin went in different directions.
In town, he owns the hotel, wool barn, ice cream store, an antique store, the wagon shed, an RV park, and 20 lots.
According to his attorney Richard Canady, contacted by phone, buyers have the option of purchasing either all his Shaniko holdings as a whole, or just the Hotel/Caf‚ and RV Park combination.
Canady declined to name a price, saying, "We have a price and qualified buyers can find out by calling me." Or, he said people can call the phone number on the For Sale sign, (503) 538-2156 for Floyd Aylor, president of Columbia Empire Farms.
Infusion of money
To help the town's effort to restore several historic buildings, Pamplin began giving donations to the Shaniko Restoration Group. According to Malvin Harding, restoration group president, five contributions of $25,000 were made between July 2002 and June 2004. Then the amount dropped to $10,000, with four of those amounts donated through January 2007. A lot of the funds were used as seed money to apply for historic preservation grants, it was noted.
Restoration Group projects included refurbishing the old fire house and fire truck storage building, rebuilding the old city hall, fixing up a hose cart building where turn of the century fire carts are on display, and restoring the Shaniko Schoolhouse (with Pamplin seed money and Ford Family Foundation grants).
"For several years, his donations were instrumental for a lot of restoration in town, Harding said, noting the restoration of the historic wool barn was Pamplin's own project. Earlier, Pamplin had upset townspeople by tearing down half of the wool barn during its restoration, and demolishing the town's grain elevators on his property.
In addition, Pamplin donated $4,000 a month to the city so it could employ a water master and a licensed water technician to monitor the city water system, which has used surface springs as its source since 1900.
"When he gave money, the town flowered, but the price was he wanted things to go his way," Harding said, adding, "We quit asking for money last summer because we detected a pattern of dependency."
Several absentee owners
Harding, who lives in Tualatin and works as a handyman there, said that he is one of a group of 15 business owners who work elsewhere and live in Shaniko on the weekends because they love it and want to help restore it.
The Shaniko Hotel and cafe was only open seasonally, and had sporadic days and hours that were confusing to visitors, Harding said, noting it was hard to run it with a staff of five. "Previously, the hotel was run by a couple or one person to be economical," he said referring to previous owners Jean Farrell and Sue Morelli.
He feels the town will be able to deal with the hotel's closing. "Shaniko survived in the past (without Pamplin) and will do it again. We may have to do more volunteer work like garbage collection and city cleanup," Harding said.
Shaniko chamber director Sandy Cereghino and her husband Richard, who is a city council member, are also absentee owners. They live in Vancouver, Wash., where they own a sign company, and for the past 20 years have spent weekends in Shaniko where they own an art gallery above the old city hall.
"We got married here at the Shaniko Hotel when Jean Farrell had it, and we helped him restore the hotel in 1988," Richard Cereghino said.
Cereghino is a member of the town's volunteer fire department and drives 300 miles roundtrip to attend city council meetings.
"It's a sad situation. I think (Pamplin) got on a bad foot with the city from the start ... My personal opinion is it just seems like the city was a toy to him," Cereghino said.
On businesses surviving without the hotel, he said, "It's like a David and Goliath thing we're fighting, but we're getting a lot of support from Maupin, The Dalles and the Madras area."
Sandy Cereghino said Shaniko has around 12 small businesses and they have tossed around the idea of forming a co-op to buy and run the hotel. But a high price tag would rule that idea out.
"He did a lot of good with the money he gave us, but anybody can write a check. He never sent anybody to help swing a hammer," Sandy said. "I travel 300 miles every weekend and put my heart and soul into this place," she said, adding, "Last Sunday I roofed and wired a building myself, then drove home."
Councilmember Byron Jacobus also is from Vancouver, Wash., where he owns a water equipment company. But five days a week he lives in Shaniko where he has an antique store and does a Western re-enactment routine with his horse in the summer.
When asked about the hotel closure's affect, Jacobus said, "It's hard to say. With the fuel costs today and the Biggs bridge being closed, everybody on Highway 97 is probably hurting. People aren't traveling and vacationing as much as they used to."
Liked Pamplin's ideas
City councilmember Sharon Kintrea was one of the five people who lost their jobs with the hotel's closure, but she holds no ill will.
"I was a waitress at the hotel and am out of a job ... but I have nothing against Pamplin. I was for him having his own water system," Kintrea said.
For the past three years, she has operated a mobile espresso stand at events in Shaniko, Wamic, Pendleton, and other areas, and also does part-time waitressing in Grass Valley.
"I had no problems with him whatsoever. I wanted him to bring in all the big houses and was disappointed when it didn't happen," Kintrea said, adding, "It would make the town grow, but some people don't want things to change."
Shaniko Mayor Goldie Roberts, who leases space for her ice cream parlor from Pamplin, felt there was some support for the subdivision, according to remarks from the city recorder and others.
On Pamplin's departure, the mayor only remarked, "I have no comment at this time."
Pamplin's attorney Canady indicated the ice cream parlor will be able to open this season, "They can use it until the lease runs out," he said.
Housing and water issues
City recorder Debbie Holbrook said Pamplin wanted his own water system for the hotel and subdivision and the city had been negotiating with him for one year to come to an agreement over use of the well he drilled.
Shaniko was also applying for a Oregon Community Economic Development Block Grant to upgrade the city water system, but they needed an expensive test well and to prove they could support and operate the new system for five years.
According to Holbrook and minutes from city council meetings, Pamplin's representatives indicated the city could use his well as the test well.
"But when it came down to negotiations (Pamplin's agreement) didn't meet our grant requirements. It was geared for him to have his own water system," Holbrook said.
Pamplin personally visited Shaniko last August to discuss problems directly with councilmembers, but the issues weren't resolved.
Two water systems would spoil the city's chances for a grant and, put city operating funds in jeopardy, Sandy Cereghino said. "It can't be done, that's what gives us our revenue ... and Oregon Water Resources, the state and others said absolutely not. You can't have two water systems," Cereghino said.
Holbrook said the city's revenue comes from water rates of $43 a month for commercial and $35 for residential, and garbage fees of $10 residential and $14 to $73 for businesses depending on the size.
At one point, when discussions bogged down, Pamplin indicated he was considering selling his Shaniko properties.
Council member Hugh Holbrook, the city recorder's husband, said in the end, "Pamplin got the impression we wanted him to move on, and he did. But there was no reason for him to. Our water passes all the state (quality) requirements."
"Economically, its going to hurt the town. It's a sad thing, but there are also a lot of residents that aren't sad to see him leave," Holbrook said.
Decision to sell
Pamplin's attorney Canady agreed that Shaniko wants and needs a new water system. To help it apply for a block grant, the city needed access to water and financial support.
"They wanted to use Dr. Pamplin's well and we were happy to do that on a 50-year lease. They also needed financial support, and he would have contributed two-thirds of the cost of operation for a five-year period," Canady said.
But as a lawyer, Canady questioned what the plans would be after the five-year period, and said, "that's where things broke down."
"We drafted an agreement, and got some good comments from the state folks and Keith Mobley (city of Shaniko's lawyer)," he said but it wasn't accepted.
"I don't think the city is of one mind on what they want to do, and Dr. Pamplin doesn't want to support them forever. He's done, and thought maybe a new owner would have better luck at reaching some sort of an agreement with the city," Canady said.
Meanwhile, the remaining businesses are not giving up. Shaniko's Old-fashioned Candy Shop owner April Pitre started "Friends of Shaniko" which raised $350 last year and uses donations for restoration projects. It also invites members to participate in special work parties. For information call (360) 606-5090.
"I love this town and came back permanently two years ago to be a part of history," Pitre said, as she prepared to open last Saturday.
She said for lodging, they have places for tent camping, and may be able to get several A-frame houses from the Big Muddy Ranch to rent out.
On the north end of town, Brian Sheer, the mayor of nearby Antelope, is busy restoring the inside of the Shaniko School, through Ford Foundation grant funds. Sheer previously lived in Shaniko and worked as a chef at the hotel before going into the construction business.
The school serves as a community center for potlucks, the "ghost town's" annual Halloween Spookhouse, and for city public meetings, Pitre said.
Chamber director Sandy Cereghino said the town has been offered a small historic "pony" locomotive engine from The Dalles Chamber of Commerce, and the chamber is working with Freightliner trucking to haul it to Shaniko.
"We're working on the second annual Wool Gathering, which had 600 to 700 people attend last year. Pamplin won't let us use the wool barn, so we'll use the old school," she said.
Some of Cereghino's customers in Vancouver have donated two semi-loads of lumber odds and ends to help Shaniko with rebuilding efforts. "We have the building materials, now we just need bodies to work," she observed.
She said the town is going forward with its activities and plans and is working with Maupin, Grass Valley and the Imperial Stock Ranch on getting places for tourists to stay overnight.
Noting the town's only gas station is also up for sale, Cereghino, said with humor, "There's no place to get gas, eat or sleep -- but we do have bathrooms!"