The most mysterious building in Portland might be the grain elevator just north of the Steel Bridge, a hulking row of concrete cylinders that look like missile silos.
For years, the Louis Dreyfus Co. (actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus is an heir) used the terminal to ship wheat from Eastern Oregon to the world. The grain came down the Columbia River on barges or rail, got piled in the silos, and then loaded onto oceangoing vessels. In 2013, Louis Dreyfus invested $21.5 million to renovate the facility, putting in new equipment to clean grain and move it from barge to silo to ship.
Then, in June 2019, Louis Dreyfus did a strange thing. It sold the whole place for just $164,000 to a California firm called Rabin Worldwide that specializes in auctioning off industrial properties and equipment. Two-bedroom houses in Gresham go for more than that.
Rabin chief financial officer Jakob Grøn declined to say anything about the fire-sale price. Louis Dreyfus didn’t return multiple inquiries sent to its media department.
And then the story got even more interesting. Beau Blixseth, son of Tim Blixseth, Oregon’s most notorious timber baron, bought the 3-acre property for $2.9 million in February 2021.
Blixseth the elder turned a Montana clear cut into the Yellowstone Club, a private ski area near Bozeman that counts Bill Gates and Justin Timberlake as members.
Blixseth the younger, 42, would like to pull off a similar feat in Portland. He thinks Louis Dreyfus made a big mistake by selling, especially now that war in Ukraine is cutting global grain supplies and driving up prices.
Beau Blixseth planned to rent his terminal to a commodities shipper. But he soon discovered a hitch in his dreams—which might explain why Louis Dreyfus sold it for a song.
An exporter expressed interest in the terminal but learned the railroad wouldn’t serve it any longer, Blixseth says. Union Pacific planned to modify a sharp corner near the terminal to prevent derailments, and the change would preclude service, he says.
Union Pacific confirms this: “We have explored all proposals for track configuration to consider service at this site,” railroad spokeswoman Robynn Tysver wrote in an email. “They do not meet Union Pacific’s engineering and safety guidelines. We have concluded that we cannot provide rail service to [the] facility.”
Anyone planning to reach it by rail is out of luck, for now, and so is Blixseth.
Blixseth, like his father, sees a pot of gold in his pile of concrete and steel. On a visit to the terminal last week, he floated the idea of a modernist Ferris wheel like the London Eye, or riverside apartments. He was undaunted by a break-in the night before during which vandals smashed windows and desks, sprayed graffiti, and tipped over shelves.
“Our goal from day one has been to get an operator inside it so that we can move grain from up the Columbia to Portland and then out to the world,” Blixseth says. “But real estate development is in my blood. I’ve always seen this property as part of the Rose Quarter.”
The neighborhood became much more interesting on June 2, when The New York Times and ESPN reported that Nike founder Phil Knight had teamed up with entrepreneur Alan Smolinisky to bid $2 billion for the Portland Trail Blazers, which play in Moda Center just across North Interstate Avenue from Blixseth’s battered grain elevator.
“It would be great if a guy like Phil could come in and turn the whole area into a very safe zone, a place where you want to go not only for a Blazer game, but for lunch,” Blixseth says.
Either way, the grain elevator has returned a controversial family to the center of Northwest real estate speculation—a place where the Blixseths have flourished, and floundered, before.
The Blixseth name is famous in Oregon, and Beau appears to have the same appetite for risk that his dad does.
Tim Blixseth grew up dirt poor in Roseburg on a diet of Spam. He worked in lumber mills in high school and got a taste for deal-making when he bought three donkeys for $75 and resold them for $225, according to a Bloomberg News story from 2006. Once he had a nest egg, he started buying and selling small parcels of timberland.
He bought sawmills and he got rich (“Timber Tycoon,” WW, Oct. 5, 1989). That run, the first of many, ended in the 1980s, when interest rates jumped and timber prices slumped. He and his then-wife, Edra, declared bankruptcy. They listed $15.4 million in debts and $4,400 in assets, Bloomberg reported in 2006.
Soon after, Blixseth pitched Peter Stott, founder of local trucking company Market Transport Ltd., on a new timber venture, Crown Pacific Ltd. When Stott and a partner bought Blixseth out in 1991, Blixseth used the money to buy timberland near Yellowstone National Park. He planned to subdivide it for home sites. The plan freaked out the U.S. Forest Service because elk calved on the land and endangered grizzlies fed on them, Bob Dennee, a staff officer with the Forest Service in Bozeman, told Bloomberg.
To get Blixseth out of grizzly country, the Forest Service agreed to swap him for a valley near Big Sky Resort. Blixseth took the deal and built the Yellowstone Club. Gates became a member, along with former Vice President Dan Quayle and bicycling champion Greg LeMond.
Everything went well until Credit Suisse, the huge Swiss bank, showered the Western U.S. with money, offering huge loans to resort owners like Blixseth, then selling pieces of those loans to investors craving higher interest payments.
Blixseth borrowed $375 million from Credit Suisse in 2005 and took $209 million of it for his operating company, according to Bloomberg.
LeMond sued Blixseth for breach of contract. As an investor in the Yellowstone Club’s operations, some of the $209 million belonged to him, he said in his 2006 complaint.
But instead of paying him, LeMond claimed Blixseth used the money to buy a medieval chateau in France, a Mexican resort called Tamarindo, two jets, two Rolls-Royce Phantoms, and three Land Rovers, according to LeMond’s complaint.
The suit created unsavory headlines for a club that caters to billionaires. LeMond eventually won $39.5 million, according to attorney Chris Madel, who represented LeMond.
Then, the 2008 financial crisis hit, and Tim Blixseth went through an ugly divorce with Edra. She got the club in the split and promptly put it into bankruptcy.
Blixseth has been fighting those proceedings ever since, according to complaints and appeals he’s filed. He spent 14 months in a Montana jail starting in 2015 after a federal judge ruled that Blixseth hadn’t accounted for the proceeds when he sold Tamarindo.
The sins of the father don’t appear to have impeded the son.
To buy the grain elevator, a Blixseth business entity called Castle Arden 1 LLC borrowed $3.3 million from the Sortis Income Fund LLC, an affiliate of a Portland-based firm called Sortis Holdings that specializes in alternative investments like real estate loans. Sortis was founded by Jef Baker, who, as CEO of Gresham-based MBank, caused a stir in 2014 with a short-lived foray into banking the cannabis industry (“Joint Ventures,” WW, March 25, 2015).
Sortis didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.
One thing that Blixseth doesn’t advertise: His riverfront property is piled high with shards of old tires. They are awaiting shipment to Asia for use as fuel, he says when pressed.
The business is run by Castle Tire Recycling, a Portland company that gathers tires for fuel and recycling into synthetic turf on sports fields. Castle Tire is led by Chandos Mahon, Blixseth’s partner in the grain elevator. Public records show he signed the loan agreement with Sortis along with Blixseth.
Blixseth says Mahon is press shy. He didn’t return a phone call and emails seeking comment.
“There were multiple reasons we bought the property,” Blixseth says. “We were definitely looking for something that we could utilize industrially and had the ability to import and export whatever kind of material. That was important.”
So, for now, Blixseth is in the tire-recycling business. He also gets paid for the gigantic billboard for ESPN that hangs on the side of the elevator.
Wheat may come next, especially if the war in Ukraine keeps driving prices higher. Russia and Ukraine account for one-third of the global supply, and those sources are constrained by naval blockades and sanctions. Portland, meantime, is the U.S.’s largest port for wheat exports, according to the Department of Agriculture.
And if wheat doesn’t work out, there’s always Phil Knight maybe.