By Luke Hegdal

Staff writer

HERMISTON — An Eastern Oregon University center in Hermiston would be a major boon to the area's economy. That was the message delivered to Ray Naff of the governor's office during a meeting of the EOU Center's steering committee on Tuesday.

The proposed center would offer four-year and graduate degrees to area students, as well as those in need of further training.

"We're not doing this because it's fashionable," said former Hermiston School Superintendent Jer Pratton. "This is about real people with real needs."

According to the steering committee, there are nearly 2,000 potential students for the center, and Region 12 (Umatilla and Morrow counties) is the fastest growing region in the state.

Tim Seydel, spokesman for EOU, said that one of the biggest problems facing the region is students leaving for college — and not returning.

"We need a base in this area," Seydel said.

Hermiston's Fred Ziari, founder of EZ Wireless LLC, has said he has had to move his headquarters to Portland to be able to find people with the training to staff his company.

"I want to be here — I live here," said Ziari, calling the weekly commutes to Portland a hassle.

Pratton also pointed to the Simplot and Heppner mill closures as examples of the need for further education options.

John Turner, president of Blue Mountain Community College, pointed out that the Hermiston campus of Blue Mountain Community College doesn't have the facilities to adequately serve students.

"We can't offer lab sciences here," Turner said. Currently BMCC science students are using Hermiston High School classrooms at night.

Naff, a Hermiston graduate himself, agreed that the project would have a very positive impact.

"This is an exciting project and clearly something the governor is committed to," Naff said, referring to the $13 million Kulongoski has earmarked for the project in his proposed budget. "Improving rural Oregon helps the entire state."

Naff did admit that it won't all be smooth sailing. Convincing legislators from the western part of the state could be a problem.

"Everyone is increasing funding requests," agreed Ziari.

But Naff remained optimistic, calling on the steering committee to meet the challenge. Talking to the local delegation is an important first step, according to Naff.

"This is an impressive group," Naff said referring to the diverse makeup of the committee. "One of the things this committee has done is to bring elements together from around the region."

Luke Hegdal can be reached at lhegdal@hermistonherald.com

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