April 18, 2002 11:00 pm

The La Grande area's urban growth boundary is under attack by a few local individuals who think expanding the boundary will help a national box store chain expand the size of its local store into one of those mega stores that are dotting the landscape across Oregon.

On Monday evening, the Union County Planning Commission will hear the first step in the march to quantify the need for expanding the boundary, which shows where a city plans to expand its sewer, water and other services. The commissioners will discuss the Union County Population Analysis and 2020 Forecast by The Benkendorf Associates Corp.

THE INFORMATION in this report is out of touch with the reality of rural Oregon and especially with Northeast Oregon. Many of the hypotheses are based on the projected growth of jobs over the next 20 years. And the lynch pin of the concept is that Eastern Oregon University will more than double the size of the school's enrollment from the report's current data (1,700 students) to 4,120 students by 2020.

For those who have paid attention to Eastern for the past 30 years or more, this kind of growth would be far more than miraculous. The report tells the story of the university growing radically because of the new science building and the effects of the proposed biotechnology that will result. The forecast is for 78 new jobs being created on campus and then, using a 1.75-multiplying factor, even more jobs will be created in La Grande and the county.

Anyone following higher education these days would know that much of the growth at small universities like EOU is coming from online students, students who live elsewhere but complete their classes on the Internet. Optimistically, EOU would do well to grow to 3,000 students on campus over the next 20 years. The report doesn't consider the competition from the new Oregon State University branch campus in Bend or schools in Idaho.

Much of the other growth projected in the Benkendorf report is in trailer manufacturing, which is risky considering the trade's susceptibility to the ups and downs of the economy.

ONE THING THE REPORT fails to consider is the number of jobs that have been lost over the past decade due to downsizing in the timber industry, government sectors, agriculture, the railroad and the retail sector. Many of the downtown store fronts that were homes to thriving retail businesses more than 20 years ago are now occupied by non-retail businesses. Even with the expansion of business along Island Avenue, the net result has to be a step backwards.

Many of the conclusions of the Benkendorf report, including its housing forecast, are weak at best. We hope the Union County Planning Commission will open its collective eyes and see that allowing the gigantic box store to be the catalyst to expand the UGB would be a major error. We must assess the future realistically We need to create jobs that provide the kind of income that can buy homes, purchase vehicles, take vacations, and send the children to the university. A handful of $7 an hour jobs won't do that.