HERMISTON - The dream of a regional university center in Hermiston inched closer to reality with $21 million earmarked for the project in Gov. Ted Kulongoski's proposed 2007-09 budget.

Blue Mountain Community College, Eastern Oregon University and the city of Hermiston got together more than two years ago to brainstorm about how to boost higher learning in Hermiston and outlying areas. The city donated 6.7 acres near BMCC's Hermiston campus and offered to waive planning, building and connection fees to fuel the effort between the two colleges.

Now, the governor has stepped up to the plate by designating $13 million to EOU and $8 million to BMCC in his proposed budget.

BMCC President John Turner said he is pleased by the governor's budget, though it means a major fund-raising push. The dollar amounts are a bit deceiving, Turner said.

"The State will eventually issue capital construction bonds for up to half of that amount and we'll match the rest," Turner said.

The college has already raised $2 million and has another $1 million in earmarked federal funds. EOU also received federal dollars and is working to raise more.

"It will take a couple years to raise the kind of money we're looking at," Turner said.

The city of Hermiston's commitment of land and service will count as matching funds - valued at about $1.5 million.

Hermiston City Manager Ed Brookshier is ecstatic that the project caught the governor's eye.

"What we're doing is very much in tune with the governor's objectives," said Brookshier. "Obviously, we're extremely pleased that we've been included in his budget request."

Kulongoski spokesman Jake Weigler echoed Brookshier.

"This is a real priority for the governor," Weigler said. "As part of the capital budget, it is part of a broader state-wide effort to reinvest in education at all levels."

He said Kulongoski noticed the stakeholders' collaborative efforts in finding a way to bring higher education to more people.

And that is the crux of the project, said Darce Driskel, who serves on the work group. Driskel, superintendent of the Hermiston School District said the presence of a university center would increase the number of area graduates who attend college.

"Over 80 percent of Hermiston High School students say they'll attend college," Driskel said. Only about 50 percent actually go.

The impediments are high cost and distance, he said. He expects the number of college-bound students to shoot up if the center becomes reality.

Jerr Pratton, project consultant, put together a Sears & Roebuck catalogue-sized report that looked into whether the area needed such a facility. He dove into employment office data, talked to business and community leaders and delved into reams of state reports.

"All the signals I received and data I collected pointed to a need in the area for college classes in the area," Pratton said.

Though BMCC already has a campus in Hermiston, it has no laboratory space and is weak in science offerings. Science labs often take place at Hermiston High School.

EOU would like to capture education and business students who go over the river to attend Columbia Basin College to obtain their master's degrees.

A Portland architectural firm, SLX Architects, will soon complete concept sketches of the campus. The drawings will go into an informational brochure that will soon be available, Brookshier said.

Pratton said the end is nowhere in sight, but he is pleased with the pace.

"In the words of Robert Frost, we have miles to go before we sleep," said Pratton, "but we have gotten over some major speed bumps."

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