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Bill stokes hopes to reopen planetarium.

Byline: RANDI BJORNSTAD The Register-Guard

It's still as dim as a faraway galaxy, but a glimmer of hope has appeared on the horizon that the Lane County ESD Planetarium may yet resume its long-standing mission of introducing thousands of wide-eyed schoolchildren to the glories of the nighttime sky.

The U.S. Senate passed a $390 billion budget bill Thursday that included - despite the fact that the planetarium ran out of money and closed in December - a $1 million allocation for planetarium activities in Lane County.

That doesn't mean the area automatically will get the money. A similar provision isn't in the House bill, so the allocation will have to survive deliberations of a joint House-Senate committee before it becomes a fact.

"This was a real surprise," said Mike Vermillion, superintendent of the Lane Education Service District, which owns the planetarium equipment and operated it in Alton Baker Park for 23 years before the closure.

"We had heard the money was no longer in the Senate bill, and now we've learned it was," he said Friday. "It caught us off-guard, so now we have to figure out what our next step should be. We still believe the planetarium is an important asset to the community. I hope maybe this will generate some new interest and commitment for it."

Because of financial problems - planetariums worldwide rarely pay their own way as independent facilities - the education district had entered into an agreement with the Lane County Fair Board 18 months ago to take over the operation of the planetarium.

In November, the Fair Board sent a $10 million bond measure to voters, hoping to build a new planetarium and learning center on the fairgrounds. When voters rejected that proposal, the Fair Board pulled its financial support, forcing the closure.

In the aftermath, developer John Musumeci of Arlie & Co. made a tentative offer of land and money to ensure the future of the planetarium on a site near Lane Community College, but that offer apparently has been abandoned, Vermillion said.

Closure of the planetarium also threw into jeopardy the future of SkyVision, a $450,000 piece of state-of-the-art planetarium equipment given to Lane ESD by local attorney John Jaqua and his wife, Robin. The donation came with the proviso that if a new planetarium and learning center didn't come to fruition at the fairgrounds, ownership of the equipment would revert to the Jaqua family.

No decisions have been made yet about disposition of SkyVision, although Vermillion said that recent discussions had included the possibility of housing it at the University of Oregon.

The chance that federal money could help resurrect the planetarium program "won't change anything for the Fair Board," fair manager Warren Wong said. "If Lane ESD can continue to put on programs at the planetarium or in some other location - if this money really does come through - they could do that. But it doesn't change any dynamics for us at the Fair Board. We've made our decision - we can't get back into the game."

Lane County Commissioner Anna Morrison, who helped advocate for the federal money with Oregon's senators, Republican Gordon Smith and Democrat Ron Wyden, said discussions will resume during the next few days about the planetarium's future. "It's hard to let go of the possibility of $1 million for this program," Morrison said.

Some talks regarding a planetarium program have taken place recently involving the county, Lane ESD and the University of Oregon, Morrison said, but at this point the sky's the limit in terms of what could happen.

"Nothing's totally decided, but it's looking better than it did a few weeks ago," Morrison said. "Each step of the way, I get a little more encouraged - I'm really hopeful now. But I've learned that until something's signed and even in the mail, you can't count on it. So we'll just have to wait and see."

The Senate bill also includes money for 18 other projects in Oregon, including $250,000 for drinking and wastewater improvements in Eugene and Springfield and $75,000 for development of the Oakridge Community Center.
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Title Annotation:Astronomy: The Senate's budget bill includes $1 million for the Lane County facility, but no one is counting the money yet.; Science & Technology
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 25, 2003
Words:679
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