Some inch close to the cliff at the edge of the property and gaze at the Columbia River, 1,100 feet below.
Twilight groupies make the pilgrimage to see where pivotal scenes from the 2008 cult vampire flick were shot.
Others come to inspect the damage from a July fire that left the 87-year-old inn a charred ruin.
And everybody who visits the Viewpoint now witnesses something else: a larger-than-life photo of inn owner Geoff Thompson, his bodybuilder's physique naked except for a strategically placed banner.
Above Thompson's head on the photo are the words "Small Business Crucified," and across his midsection, the banner reads, âBy the Obama Administration.â
The Christ metaphor suits Thompson's worldview.
"It's been rough here," Thompson says. "But what I've gone through has made me an amazing human being."
The crucifixion image is unsettling to neighbors in the unincorporated east Multnomah County hamlet of Corbett.
âItâs appalling,â says Eric Lichtenthaler, a contractor who lives about a half mile from the inn.
More unsettling to some locals is the amount of money—more than $3.2 million—that Thompson owes creditors, former employees and dozens of disappointed brides and grooms.
"They crucified themselves," Lichtenthaler says of Thompson and partner Angelo Simione. "When you don't pay your bills, that's your fault."
The story of the Viewpoint Inn is more than just another small business saga. It's also a story of one man's obsession and how he persuaded those responsible for protecting the Columbia River Gorge to bend federal and local laws for his benefit.
Thompson, 50, describes himself as a "gay, three times bankrupt, in jail twice, recovering alcoholic."
Despite his blemished résumé, Thompson persuaded the Columbia River Gorge Commission and Multnomah County to let him do something that had never been done—to operate a commercial business in a historic property in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.
With help from an unlikely collection of allies, including conservative property rights advocates and state Treasurer Ted Wheeler, Thompson reopened the inn on Memorial Day 2007, after a three-year land-use battle that left him deeply in debt.
Today, hundreds of creditors are out millions of dollars, the inn is roofless, and a bankruptcy trustee has wrested Thompson's dream from him.
People take different lessons from the Viewpoint Inn's literal and financial collapse.
Michael Lang, conservation director for the environmental group Friends of the Columbia Gorge, says the county and the Gorge Commission should never have trusted Thompson, let alone changed policy at his behest.
Matt Wand, the attorney for three creditors, says Thompson's ability to dodge his bills shows how the justice system fails honest businesspeople.
Thompson has a different take.
He says he's an honorable man whose dream cratered when policymakers from Obama to Gov. John Kitzhaber failed to extend small businesses like his the same lifeline they gave to Wall Street, automakers and AIG.
Worst of all, he says, opposition from Friends of the Columbia Gorge put him in a financial hole he could never escape.
âI take 100 percent responsibility for everything that happened at the inn,â Thompson says today.
"But these people [Friends of the Gorge] have taken pleasure in destroying lives—and many more than just mine."
Geoff Thompson never served in the Marines. He might have missed his calling.
"He's a drill sergeant, a perfectionist and can get militaristic," says Simione, 58, his domestic and business partner of eight years.
Thompson micromanaged details at the inn, from paint colors in the five suites to the creases in the table linen.
"I've had middle-aged straight guys come out of the bathroom at the inn and say, 'Thank you, that's the cleanest bathroom I've ever seen,'" says Thompson, a grizzled former calendar model who spends a couple of hours a day pumping iron and running on the treadmill at the Pearl District 24-Hour Fitness.
One of five boys raised by a single mother on a Fred Meyer cashier's salary, Thompson grew up in outer Southeast Portland's Parkrose neighborhood.
âWe didnât have any money for vacations or trips,â he says. âSo weâd come up to the Gorge.â
Thompson recalls that when he was about 8, he had a "Rosebud" moment when he first laid eyes on the Viewpoint Inn, the 4,200-square-foot property built in 1924.
It was love at first sight.
The Tudor-style mansion's architect was Carl Linde, who also designed such Portland landmarks as the 1922 Sovereign Hotel on Southwest Broadway, now the Oregon History Center. And the Viewpoint Inn had a colorful history; President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charlie Chaplin, among many others, visited.
"I knew if I could own that property someday, I'd be somebody," Thompson says.
As a kid, Thompson loved design. "I lived behind the sofa in my mom's house, drafting floor plans every day," he says.
A committed truant, Thompson entered his senior year at Parkrose High well short of graduation requirements. A sympathetic teacher said she'd wangle him credits for every hour he could dance in a Charleston contest. The 1979 Guinness Book of World Records shows that Thompson and two classmates danced for 43 straight hours. He graduated.
After bouncing around for a decade, Thompson headed to Nashville, where he snagged a recording contract with Arista Records. As a gay Democrat who sang rockabilly, he did not fit the country mold.
"I hated the radio tours," he says. "I remember sitting in a smoky bar in Paducah, Ky., eating deep-fried cheese sticks and kissing some DJ's ass for air time. That was not for me."
In 1997, after doing some modeling and making an abortive foray into men's grooming products—he got caught relabeling another company's merchandise—Thompson took the first step in realizing his dream: He leased the Viewpoint Inn with an option to purchase.
For decades, the Viewpoint had operated commercially, but by the time he leased it, the property had been a private residence for more than a decade, the laws had changed, and he could not legally operate it as a hotel (see "The Columbia River Gorge Commission," below).
Thompson needed a way to make money from the Viewpoint, and he found a loophole that satisfied county land-use rules: He licensed the inn as a school that would teach job skills to people with developmental disabilities, including his younger brother, Matt. Those skills involved preparing and serving meals.
Over time, the inn became incrementally more commercial. Thompson began hosting weddings, taking advantage of the spectacular setting.
That activity ran afoul of the Gorge National Scenic Act and county zoning rules. In addition, the Oregon Department of Justice investigated in 1999 whether Thompson was fraudulently using state Medicaid funds and improperly soliciting charitable contributions under the guise of job training.
In 2000, DOJ and Thompson reached a settlement in which he agreed to close his business, stop soliciting contributions and never again seek government reimbursement for providing care to people with disabilities. He also agreed to pay $15,000 in fines. The loophole he'd found for the Viewpoint Inn suddenly squeezed shut.
Unable to serve meals or host weddings, Thompson could not afford the inn and surrendered his lease.
"I was in heaven, and then the battle began," Thompson says. "Friends of the Columbia Gorge was fighting to shut me down. Then there was a [Department of Justice] investigation and I lost the place. That's when I could see how powerful these people were."
After Thompson gave up his dream, he fled to Los Angeles and redirected his energy.
He threw himself into weight lifting, bench-pressing, he recalls, 455 pounds and squatting 600. He says he also abused steroids, pumping himself up to 255 pounds, nearly 50 pounds more than his current weight. He twice landed in jail after fights. His heavy drinking escalated, as did his abuse of other drugs.
"I hit bottom in L.A," Thompson says. "I used meth every day for a year."
In 2003, he met his partner, Simione, and sobered up. He says he also learned to tame the anger that once got him banned from Multnomah County headquarters (see "Buff Daddy," WW, Sept. 29, 1999).
(Thompson hasn't mellowed completely: In a recent interview, he referred to former Multnomah County Chairwoman Diane Linn, a Viewpoint opponent, as "a bitch, bought and paid for by Friends of the Gorge"; assistant county attorney Sandra Duffy as "a disgusting human being"; and the Friends of the Columbia Gorge's Lang as "a miserable person." And when Simione suggested a possible reconciliation with Lang and his group, Thompson said, "I piss on that, in all sincerity.")
In Los Angeles, Thompson pined to return to the Viewpoint Inn. He lugged around an archive of photos and documents from his earlier tenancy.
In 2003, a sale of the inn to musician Michael Allen Harrison (coincidentally a high-school acquaintance of Thompson's) fell through. A real estate agent called Thompson and Simione, who bought the property for $450,000.
When they arrived in Corbett that December, the property lacked electricity and upstairs windows, and had been inhabited by squatters and a couple of abandoned cats.
But repairing years of damage and neglect proved easier than getting permission to operate the inn as a commercial establishment.
Thompson says nobody gave him any indication before the purchase whether he'd get permission to reopen the inn: He just felt he'd find a way to do so.
"I can't turn my back on doing the right thing," he says. "There are just some times in life when you fight for principle—and this was one of them."
For three years, Thompson battled the Columbia River Gorge Commission and Multnomah County.
The Gorge Commission decided first, and gave Thompson what he wanted. Martha Bennett, who was executive director of the commission, says when Thompson applied for a plan amendment, her group surveyed the number of historic properties in the Gorge and realized many were at risk.
The commission found that historical preservation was part of the scenic act's purpose and so voted to allow commercial use for any property listed on the National Register of Historic Places (as the Viewpoint was) or that could qualify for listing.
"Commissioners felt strongly that preservation of the Viewpoint Inn and other properties was in keeping with the act," says Bennett, whom Metro hired last month to be its chief operating officer.
"It is unfortunate that those particular owners [Thompson and Simione] were the people to make that happen."
Friends of the Columbia Gorge, a well-financed, laser-focused outfit, bitterly opposed that decision and were frustrated by what they saw as a lack of accountability measures to keep the inn safe.
"Martha Bennett was resistant to almost every suggestion or request by Friends of the Gorge to tighten this plan amendment,â says the groupâs Lang.
"She seemed to think this was a public relations nuclear bomb and didn't want her agency to get caught in the blast zone."
Thompson's victory was incomplete. While the Gorge Commission had approved his use of the inn, he still required zoning approval from Multnomah County.
At the final hearing on Thompson's request to Multnomah County, throngs of conservative property rights advocates came to support two gay Democrats.
Critics worried greenlighting the Viewpoint Inn would open the Gorge to widespread exploitation.
"We weren't really opposed to the Viewpoint as much as we were opposed to the extension of the policy to the whole Gorge," says Claudia Curran, one of the Corbett residents who testified in opposition.
Hundreds of people wrote letters supporting Thompson and Simione, and many lawmakers and local elected officials backed them as well. Perhaps Thompson's most influential supporter, however, was Ted Wheeler, then a candidate for Multnomah County chairman.
"Multnomah County's position on the Viewpoint Inn shifted when Ted Wheeler began campaigning for the reopening of the inn in late 2005 and early 2006," says Lang.
Wheeler made a strong case for Thompson.
"This is an important economic development opportunity that the commission should direct the Planning Bureau to move forward on just as quickly as possible," he told commissioners in Jan. 5, 2006, testimony.
"What are we waiting for? Why not prioritize the creation of dozens of living-wage jobs? Why not prioritize the process of boosting this important part of our local community?"
Today, Wheeler says he still thinks Thompson had a compelling vision. "It was always an open question whether they [Thompson and Simione] had the business acumen to pull it off," he says. "There's no question they've made some very bad business decisions."
Despite Thompson's history of complaints and bankruptcies (two by that time), county commissioners awarded him a five-year permit.
Friends of the Gorge sued. All the group achieved, however, was an agreement that Thompson would fix the inn's ancient cedar-shake roof, repair the chimney that sprouted from the massive river-rock fireplace, and maintain fire insurance (all of which he failed to do).
At the time, Thompson felt triumphant.
"I came back from L.A. and won a victory over the Forest Service, Multnomah County, the Gorge Commission and Friends of the Gorge,â he says.
"I won a victory not just for me but for the thousands of people who had their lives destroyed by 'radical environmentalism.'"
In the end, radical environmentalists did not bring about the Viewpoint's demise. Instead, it was chicken coops and Thompson's negligence.
Before the Viewpoint Inn reopened on Memorial Day 2007, Thompson hired Corbett contractor Richard Wand to build chicken coops.
But Thompson failed to pay Wand about $10,000, one of many, many bills that would go unpaid.
"I'm actually a brilliant businessman," Thompson says. "It's easy to run a business when you have all the money in the world. Try it with nothing."
He would come to owe others vastly more. The biggest creditors: Chase Bank, $1.87 million for the inn and his home; two other lenders to the inn, Gerald Wilson and Steve Serafini, about $300,000 each; and the Internal Revenue Service and Oregon Department of Revenue, a total of $125,000.
Wand contacted his nephew, Matt Wand, who practices construction law.
Like Thompson, Matt Wand grew up poor in East County, and like Thompson, he does not quit.
"Matt Wand was the catalyst for what's happened to us," Thompson says. "He's relentless, just a ruthless creditors' representative."
Wand latched onto Thompson's leg like a badger, seeking payment for his uncle; another contractor who had done work on the inn; and Serafini.
For a time, the inn appeared to thrive. In 2009, USA Today called it "one of the ten great places to stage a romantic scene."
That accolade followed the filming of key scenes of the movie Twilight in the inn's Roosevelt suite.
Twilight fans flowed through the front door, but the recession, the short wedding season and the inn's relative remoteness conspired against the owners.
In January 2010, Matt Wand's clients had lost patience. Wand sent a sheriff's deputy to the inn to do what Thompson calls a "till tap."
The deputy confiscated booze from the bar and Twilight T-shirts from the gift shop. He stripped Thompson of his possessions.
âThey took the Swiss Army watch off my wrist and $60âall I had on meâout of my wallet,â Thompson says.
Those takings got auctioned but did not dent what Thompson owed.
By the time Thompson declared bankruptcy in June of this year (for the third time), the inn had racked up at least $3.2 million in debts. Among those left holding the bag: dozens of couples who made down payments of $160,000 for future weddings.
The weddings planned for summer 2011 never happened—at least not at the Viewpoint Inn. And those brides and grooms never got their money back.
"What's amazing is how easy it was for them to jilt 50 brides out of their deposits," Matt Wand says. "And how hard it is for creditors to collect."
The weddings never happened because just before noon on July 10, a spark from the inn's chimney caught its ancient cedar-shake roof on fire. That was the roof Thompson had pledged to replace but never did.
There were dozens of people at the inn, including several enjoying brunch.
"People say your life can change in a moment—like when Christopher Reeve fell off his horse and got paralyzed," Thompson says. "I finally experienced that."
As brunch guests looked on, the blaze grew into a three-alarm fire. The news would get worse.
"The next day, I found out that our fire insurance had lapsed," Thompson says.
Today, the inn is in limbo in bankruptcy court. Matt Wand says it should be sold for creditors' benefit; Thompson is desperate to get it back.
Lang, of Friends of the Columbia Gorge, blames Thompson for the mess and the failure to insure the inn, but says the agencies charged with protecting the Gorge contributed to creditors losing millions and the inn burning. (Although policymakers extended commercial operating rights to other historic Gorge properties, only one other property has jumped in.)
"A lot of people bought into the idea of restoring the inn," Lang says. "But what has happened here is the destruction of the inn for personal gain.
"Did the Gorge Commission and Multnomah County enable this to happen? I believe that they did."
Matt Wand, who won election to the Oregon House in 2009 as a Republican representing Troutdale, says state laws need to be strengthened and better enforced so people like Thompson cannot dodge their bills for years.
"The entire system is broken," Wand says. "The collection process even for crooks allowed them to run roughshod over the entire community.â
Thompson says he never made a dime from the inn. He drives a 2004 Ford Focus, lives in a house that is worth far less than he owes on it and is applying for minimum-wage jobs. He and Simione live off Simione's $2,800-a-month union pension from his days as an actor.
âI never misappropriated a penny,â Thompson says.
His dream is to retain control of the inn and rebuild it.
"They'll have to rip this place from my claws," he says. "Bankruptcy isn't the end of the world. Walt Disney, Larry King—even Donald Trump—they've all been bankrupt. Itâs not over yet.â
In 1986, Congress designated much of the Gorge a National Scenic Area, stretching from Troutdale and Washougal, Wash., 85 miles east to where the Deschutes River flows into the Columbia. The legislation prohibited commercial activity outside of designated "urban" areas such as the center of such towns as Corbett, Cascade Locks and Hood River.
The 1986 act came after years of pressure from environmentalists, led by late Portland resident Nancy Russell, who founded Friends of the Gorge in 1980.
In 1987, lawmakers in Washington and Oregon established a 12-member bi-state commission to oversee the area in concert with six Gorge counties and the National Forest Service.
Today, the allies and descendents of those who pushed for the act remain active in Friends of the Columbia Gorge. —NJ