Orange, Athol boards discuss strategies for improving downtown areas


For the Athol Daily News

Published: 08-14-2023 5:28 PM

ATHOL — Orange and Athol officials recently met to discuss ideas for how to reinvigorate the local economy.

Tom Sexton, vice chair of the Orange Long Range Comprehensive Planning Committee, and committee member Karl Bittenbender met on Aug. 8 with Athol’s Downtown Vitality Committee. The LRCPC is a subcommittee of Orange’s Planning Board. Sexton and Bittenbender hoped to glean some ideas from the DVC for reinvigorating their town’s economic future.

“We’re focused on the new master plan,” said Sexton, “so that we can establish some priorities in town and demonstrate public support for those and try to attain some funding and get some progress done on the things we care about.”

The LRCPC, he said, is just getting off the ground and finding its way — applying for grants, getting proposals from consultants who can help put the plan together, and doing research.

Sexton said the decision to meet with the DVC as the result of a chance meeting with member Paula Robinson. Robinson mentioned how Athol’s pending designation as a Tree City USA community “opens up the door to some funding opportunities” they hadn’t yet considered.

“That’s the kind of practical information we’re trying to collect so that we can get some grants and get some things moving,” Sexton continued. “Our goal would be to learn from you (the DVC) about some things that have worked and some things that haven’t.”

DVC Chair Mary Holtorf said one the first initiatives was upgrading the streetlights in downtown Athol. Athol Planning Director Eric Smith said some of the improvements were made through the use of Community Development Block Grant funds, coupled with a town match from the town’s capital account.

“It’s been a major improvement,” Smith added.

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Holtorf spoke of the creation of a Downtown Parking Benefits District, one of the goals of which is ensuring parking spaces along Main Street are kept open for business patrons.

Smith explained that prior to the district’s creation, all parking meter receipts collected had to go into the general fund. Now, those funds are deposited into a dedicated account that can be used for a variety of purposes, including parking enforcement and downtown safety and aesthetic improvements.

Smith also discussed plans for the greening of Lord Pond Plaza, employing funds provided by a state Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Action Grant and other opportunities. The project will reduce the large amount of asphalt covering the plaza’s parking lot, creating more green space, daylighting Mill Brook, which now runs under the lot, and reducing the size of the heat island created by the asphalt during the summer months.

The redevelopment of the downtown parking garage site into a 43-unit affordable housing/retail development was also mentioned as helpful to downtown Athol. The potential construction of a hotel/convention center at North Quabbin Commons – on a parcel behind the Dollar Tree and Wendy’s – was another initiative brought to the attention of Sexton and Bittenbender. It was also noted that tentative steps are being taken toward the potential demolition of some of the dilapidated downtown buildings.

Asked about the overall goal of the LRCPC, Sexton said its creation grew in part from a conversation he had with U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern during a recent visit to Orange by the congressman. Sexton asked McGovern what the town needed to do to move forward with the cleanup of the debris left from a fire that destroyed four old industrial buildings. He said the site is just a pile of bricks contaminated with asbestos in the middle of downtown.

“He said, ‘You don’t have a plan and without a plan you won’t get a nickel of the record amount of money that’s sloshing around the state right now through ARPA and other programs. You need a plan that demonstrates public support for the priorities that can be identified.’ So, that’s what we want to do; get the public engagement, public input, and have the public prioritize the things we want to do and then work toward accomplishing those goals.”

Meeting with the DVC, Sexton explained, was a first step in perhaps identifying some of the issues faced by Orange, as well as looking at potential strategies and sources of funding to address those issues.

Greg Vine can be reached at