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Private funding sought for UI Sandpoint center

by RALPH BARTHOLDT
Staff Writer | April 22, 2010 9:00 PM

SANDPOINT - The University of Idaho will not say whether its research and extension station here is in shut-down mode, despite signs indicating the station will be mothballed this summer.

In a statement released Wednesday, John Hammel, dean of The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, said the university is still looking for alternatives.

"The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences continues to evaluate the future of the Sandpoint Research and Extension Center," Hammel said in a press release.

In December, the college used non-state funds to continue operating the Sandpoint center until June 30, according to the U of I press release. The college sought partnerships or other funding sources to continue underwriting operations, but no additional funds have been committed,

Hammel said the college is moving ahead with plans to form a committee to evaluate the future of the center and prepare a plan for use of the center's land.

If no further funding is secured by June 30, the center will be put at a minimal level of operation until the committee's work is completed.

If the center is mothballed, the college will reassign Dr. Dan Barney, the center's only faculty member, to Moscow to supplement the horticulture faculty there, according to the statement.

"This is not the result we hoped for in December, but the college must respond to a $2.4 million budget reduction for the next fiscal year," Hammel said.

Agriculture Research and Extension funding has declined nearly $6 million in the last two budget years, he said. That amounts to approximately 20 percent in budget cuts.

Dr. Barney said he was notified last week of a pending closure, and that he was directed to decommission the station. That includes shuttering the center and storing equipment in the facility where he has worked for 22 years.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who helped form a committee to solicit funding and ideas to keep the facility operating, said the college's latest tack is key to the center's viability.

"I think there's a difference between closing and mothballing," Keough said. "There's an area of gray."

She said the college must develop a strategic plan to sell to future donors.

"While there is support for the current work," she said. "Private donors would like to explore other research efforts in other fields relevant to the area."

Expanded nursery research, developing a woody biomass facility, or continuing research on other horticulture products beneficial to Bonner and Boundary counties are being discussed for the site, she said.

"To provide opportunity for growth in the future and to perhaps generate revenue for long-term funding of the site," she said.

Although it is not good news, the latest development, she said, is a positive step.

"We're definitely a long ways away from where we were a year ago when they were just going to close it permanently," she said.

The university has said repeatedly that the land would not be sold.

"There is a commitment on the part of the president and dean not to sell," Keough said.

The 77-acre site has over the years been considered as a likely place for an extended U of I campus, in addition the Sandpoint station has been in the forefront of blueberry carcinogen research, as well as research in the commercial production of huckleberries, bilberries, and fir tree research.

The Sandpoint center was donated in 1912 to the university by the Humbird Lumber Company for agricultural research.

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