A Billionaire Caretaker Controlled a Now-Vacant Hearing Center in Kerns Until Last Year

It could soon get a new life as a dental clinic.

Chasing Ghosts: Hearing Aid HQ (Sophie Peel)
  • ADDRESS: 1939 E Burnside St.
  • YEAR BUILT: 1956
  • MARKET VALUE: $1.6 million
  • OWNER: J Pham Holdings LLC
  • HOW LONG IT’S BEEN EMPTY: Since spring 2023
  • WHY IT’S EMPTY: The hearing aid company closed.

The squat, square modernist office building on the northwest corner of Northeast 20th Avenue and East Burnside Street is the legacy of an Oregon hearing aid dynasty, and it once had a billionaire caretaker.

In the 1940s, a Minnesota cookware salesman named Paul Willoughby moved to Oregon and started a small chain of hearing aid clinics in Eugene and Portland. He expanded during the next four decades, and in 1983 purchased a building to serve the hard of hearing in Kerns.

The building, now empty, has wide eaves, long vertical windows, and lots of parking. The angular Willoughby sign still towers over the southwest corner.

Willoughby died in the early aughts. His son, Paul Jr., and longtime employee Scott Austin bought the company and eventually expanded it to 12 locations. Neither of Paul Jr.’s adopted sons followed him into the business, ending the dynasty. He and Austin ran it until 2014, when they sold the business to a Texas company for a “couple million dollars,” by Austin’s recollection.

“The business model was just changing, and manufacturers were getting more into the business,” Austin recalls. “We decided to move on.”

In 2017, the Texas company was purchased by Starkey Hearing Technologies, one of the biggest hearing aid manufacturers in the world. There was a family connection to the founding family: Starkey’s chief executive, Bill Austin (no relation to Scott), was Paul Jr.’s cousin.

Paul Jr. died in 2019 from complications during heart surgery and left Bill Austin in charge of his estate, according to Oregon court records. Willoughby’s estate owned the building at 20th and Burnside. For a while, the little building had a wealthy caretaker. Bill Austin has a net worth of $3.1 billion, according to Forbes.

The Willoughby office on Burnside closed about a year ago. Neither Starkey nor Willoughby Hearing responded to requests to explain why. Acting on behalf of Paul Jr.’s estate, Austin, the billionaire, sold the building to local dentist Dr. Bao Pham for $2.7 million in March 2023.

Pham, when reached by phone, says he’s building a new dental clinic at the site. He hopes to open it within three years.

In the meantime, the building has new tenants: homeless campers, some of whom use fentanyl under the front door awning, according to neighbors, posing a hazard for kids who walk and bike to nearby Buckman Elementary School.

People are “regularly passed out for the entire day under the corner entry canopy,” said one neighbor who declined to be named. Sometimes, they have an open fire, the person said. “There’s now a full encampment in the rear parking lot.” (On Tuesday morning, there was a shopping cart and a pile of bedding, but no encampment.)

Pham says he visits the building weekly to clean up the graffiti and trash. “It’s out of our hands,” Pham says. “It’s a lot of work.” SOPHIE PEEL.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.