PENDLETON - Oregon State University plans to establish new outreach programs in three small towns as part of a newly established Rural Studies Program.

Bruce Weber, the program's director and professor of agriculture and resource economics, explained the goals of the Rural Studies Program at an alumni luncheon Thursday.

"It's important for Oregon to have vibrant rural communities as part of the state," Weber said. "The vision is that OSU faculty and community leaders would talk about what their town would like to become, and how the university could help bring that about."

As part of its mission, the Rural Studies Program will offer economic development assistance to rural communities through its Sustainable Communities Initiative. It has an initial budget of $1.5 million over the next five years

By providing access to information and resources, OSU can help rural entrepreneurs, developers and community organizers to identify niche markets and new opportunities, Weber said.

"Economic development happens when people with ideas learn to produce and market to a wider area," he said. "The university can help, but we can't do all of it. We're looking for communities that are willing to enter into a give-and-take relationship with us."

The university plans to select three small towns over the next three years to serve as pilot sites, with the intention that the research and outreach programs conducted in these communities can develop viable strategies for use throughout the state.

In addition to economic development, possible outreach projects include partnerships between rural school districts and OSU's college of education, and writing workshops, oral history and community archive projects organized by the OSU Library.

The outreach will be conducted as part of the Rural Studies Program's graduate course in public policy, which specializes in the issues that affect rural areas.

Few universities offer such a graduate degree program, according to Weber, and OSU would be the only such school on the west coast.

"More importantly, there's an internship requirement," Weber said. "The students will work on issues of importance, as chosen by the local governments.

"For example, a student might take on the project of developing a grant application for improvements to a small town's water and sewer system."

The purpose of the program is to educate future government officials to better serve rural residents.

"We want to train more effective leaders, able to articulate the needs of rural Oregon in the state Legislature," Weber said. "It's an experiment, an attempt to change the way we relate to rural communities."

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