Valley projects score big in state's new capital budget

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WALLA WALLA -- A nursing home for veterans, education and technical training centers and improved rail shipping in Walla Walla County all came out winners in the state budget Gov. Chris Gregoire signed off on in April.

Five projects in the county were among those slated for funds from a $1 billion capital budget package the Legislature approved. The budget, to take the state through June 30, 2013, was passed in a 22-hour marathon of negotiations and votes at the end of an extended legislative session.

"We were very fortunate in the capital budget," said state Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton. "We felt very good about what we were able to get out of the budget."

The proposed Walla Walla State Veterans Home will receive $14.4 million, according to information provided by state Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-College Place. When completed, the facility is expected to provide 93 permanent jobs.

The money will provide matching funds for the project, which is to be built at the Jonathan M. Wainwright Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Remaining funds for the skilled nursing facility would come from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

Regional public education and technical training also received a financial boost from state coffers.

The Southeast Area Technical Skills Center will receive $10.35 million.

To be built on land off Isaacs Avenue, the center will be a branch campus of the Tri-Tech Skills Center of the Kennewick School District and serve Walla Walla public high school students. Construction is to begin later this year.

The center will also be open to students from the Dayton, Waitsburg, Touchet and Prescott school districts and some local private high schools. It could also eventually serve Oregon students through the Milton-Freewater School District.

Skills Centers offer supplemental instruction to students looking to pursue technical careers after high school.

The $10.35 million will cover the cost of building the center over the next school year. In 2011, the Legislature approved $1.169 million for architectural designs.

The state is covering about 90 percent of the project cost, from preliminary designs to construction. Walla Walla Public Schools provided its 10 percent share through the value of the land it has been leasing from Walla Walla Community College.

The center is expected to open in time for the start of the 2013-14 school year. Students will initially be able to take classes in construction trades, welding, renewable resources and health occupation programs, with space at the center for future program growth.

"This skills center will provide us more options for students throughout the Walla Walla Valley and help us better coordinate programs with Walla Walla Community College," said WWPS Superintendent Mick Miller in a prepared statement.

In another funding measure to benefit education and regional development, WWCC received $3.67 million for its Alternative Energy Training and Innovation Center.

The state money, along with existing and anticipated grants, would develop another science and technology cluster to WWCC programs geared toward responding to regional needs and training students for family-wage jobs.

With the region's wind, water systems and sunshine, WWCC President Steve VanAusdle said, "The energy industry is going to evolve in our part of the world, but it's going to take education and training to evolve."

About 21/2 years ago the college started a wind-energy technology program that now enrolls 60 students being trained to operate and maintain the region's growing number of wind-driven generators. VanAusdle said research, innovation and training on additional forms of clean, alternative sources -- including fish-friendly micro-hydroelectric, solar and biofuels technology -- will be incorporated with the wind program.

About $600,000 of the allocated state money would build a 5,000-square-foot teaching shop being planned in the first phase of the project. Money would be spent on acquiring equipment and technology the building would house, as well as developing on-campus alternative energy projects that would prove electricity as well as hands-on monitoring and learning experience.

Funds also would be used to leverage further grants as well as work with stakeholders in the area's state-designated Innovation Partnership Zone to test ideas.

"We may learn of some things that don't work, as well as things that do," VanAusdle said.

A project to expand the infrastructure of the Railex facility near Burbank will receive $2.75 million.

Funding efforts for the expansion are moving ahead through state and local agencies, though company officials say plans are yet to be solidified.

Jim Kleist, manager of Railex's Wallula warehouse, said development of a fourth location for shipping goods by dedicated rail has long been in the works but remains to be completed.

The company has its sights on Florida for another shipping hub.

He said efforts to gain funding are necessary through the development, which he said could be 11 to 13 months away.

He declined to comment on further details of the development that's been the subject of a state capital budget item, as well as possible efforts by the Port of Walla Walla to seek Community Economic Revitalization Board funds.

Kleist said the company will announce any developments if and when they happen.

"As soon as it's real, we'll let everybody know," he said.

U-B staff members Maria P. Gonzalez, Vicki Hillhouse, Andy Porter and Thomas P. Skeen contributed to this report.

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