SHANIKO, Ore. - It seems money doesn't always buy friends, at least in the tiny Central Oregon town of Shaniko.
The town is the kind of place history buffs dream about - where pioneer life, although slightly weathered and tilted, seems to have stood still.
An infatuation with the Wild West brought Robert Pamplin, Jr., to Shaniko nine years ago. The Portland media mogul bought and restored the century-old Shaniko Hotel and Cafe, the R.V. park and a historic barn, then paid to fix up other buildings. He was hoping to preserve and capitalize on Shaniko's historic significance as a once-thriving railroad hub.
But the opportunity of a future as vibrant as the past is now up for sale, the fallout of a battle with a millionaire who is accustomed to buying what he wants.
"I'm getting kind of tired of talking about the man," said resident April Pitre (pictured at right), who runs a gallery and candy shop in a building Pamplin helped restore. "He's done nothing but bad here and he can go on his way now."
So what's at the center of this town spat? History books will tell you in the West, it's always about water and Pamplin needed it for his hotel and to expand the town. So he dug a well and boy did he find water - 250 gallons a minute came gushing out.
"Oh he found water, lots of water," said the mayor's husband, Richard Roberts (pictured at right).
In a town that relies on fragile spring water, Roberts said that's like finding gold.
"That's a lot of water when you consider we get maybe 15 gallons a minute of surface water," he said.
"We didn't anticipate finding that much water," said Floyd Aylor with Columbia-Empire Farms. Aylor (pictured at right) oversees Pamplin's farm properties and speaks on the issue when Pamplin won't. To get that water from the well to the hotel, Pamplin requested an easement from the city. For that, the state recommended the water serve the rest of the town as well.
The tentative deal...
"Give them the water and we would buy the water back," said Aylor.
"He wanted to build some houses and there were some people who didn't want to see the new houses that he was going to build next to their property and blah, blah, blah, you know how that goes," said Roberts.
"We never had a housing plan," said Aylor. "There was never a development plan. It was only a concept."
But worry over the impact on other pending water projects, reviews and historic district designation changed the minds of some on the council.
Pitre's take on the matter - Pamplin should have had permission before he drilled within city limits.
"He wanted his own private water system and we couldn't by law give it to him," she said. "Oregon said no, so we were willing to keep negotiating with him and he decided to stop negotiations."
"We were dealing with folks that one day would tell you one thing and the next day totally opposite," said Aylor. "And we lost confidence."
Pamplin (pictured below) quickly capped the well, closed the hotel and put it up for sale. "He's washed his hands (of it)," said Aylor. "He's lost confidence in the people."
And business at Shaniko's Goldie's ice cream parlor since then?
"I'm not going to say it's great because it's not," said Roberts. "But it's tolerable. I would like to see him come back."
But Pitre doesn't want to see Pamplin come back.
"We don't need you to own our town, own our water," she said. "We don't need that. We can do it ourselves. Yes, we may not have been running this city the way he thought we should be but the city's been running without him for a long time."
And it may have to continue without its most prominent properties. At $3.1 million, and with its new political history, it will take an ambitious buyer.
This is the second summer the hotel and RV park have been closed but the town and all of the shops are still open.
The city plans to build two new wells on sites chosen long before Pamplin discovered his water.