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La Grande Observer Daily paper 10/24/14

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Will Northeast Oregon become an economic wasteland? Or will it become a model for attracting clean industry and family-wage jobs?

We stand at a crossroads, and Eastern Oregon University will play a key role in taking us down the right path.

Some folks believe the economy must be built first. Then the revenues generated can be used to build a higher education system second to none.

In real life, the building of a strong, vibrant economy works just the opposite. As in the movie "Field of Dreams," where the focus is baseball, if you build a higher-education diamond, they — businesses and investors — will come.

Kirby Dyess, a new member of the State Board of Higher Education who recently visited La Grande, pointed a light on this truism, and we think it bears repeating. Dyess listed cases in point — Silicon Valley and Ireland, for example — where a strong university system was built first, like a sun in the solar system, and then began to attract a constellation of industry. Soon the areas flourished economically.

Some say Northeast Oregon's economy is dimming with the decline of extraction industries like timber. But there is a bright light on the horizon. With a Ph.D. in economics, incoming EOU President Khosrow Fahtemi is uniquely positioned to help develop a vibrant university that would in turn attract clean industry and family-wage jobs to Northeast Oregon.

The first step a university plays is creating a strong labor pool to draw from. Eastern is doing that, graduating competent, capable, stable employees motivated to stay in the local area by lifestyle, family ties and a dedication to making this area one of a kind in quality of life.

Fahtemi has the skills and plans to make such dreams a reality. Among other plans, he has said he hopes to create a self-funded database collection center that would become a one-stop shopping center for attracting businesses to locate or make investments here.

The region, while not an economic wasteland certainly, faces numerous development challenges. So does the university. One positive step, fitting in with Gov. Ted Kulongoski's higher education goals, is to make sure students can move quickly and confidently to graduation and becoming contributing members of society. Fahtemi complements this plan with a goal of increasing the percentage of college-bound students, whether they attend EOU or some other university, as they learn the benefits of a college experience and degree to themselves and to the community at large.

Among those benefits is reducing class division in Oregon and the growing gap between rich and poor. Having more people move up to the kinds of jobs and contributions college graduates can make to society contributes to regional economic stability.

Fahtemi is a person who we believe will be influential in promoting the symbiotic relationship between higher education and a strong economy. It is our hope that he will contribute, along with other community leaders, to nurturing healthy, well-planned growth. The opportunities for synergy between town and gown are numerous, as together we strive to recruit clean industry and family-wage jobs, and as the university becomes the region's economic driver.


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