Orange cereal factory blaze a warning bell for local towns

  • The former International Paper Mill in Erving. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Erving officials plan to hold a public forum on potential uses for the former International Paper Mill this summer. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The former Strathmore Mill in Turners Falls. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • A fire in 2007 destroyed one of the buildings in the former Strathmore Mill complex in Turners Falls. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The former Strathmore Mill in Turners Falls. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Workers cover the debris from the cereal factory fire in Orange with tarps as the site is being monitored for asbestos. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Workers cover the debris from the cereal factory fire in Orange with tarps as the site is being monitored for asbestos. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 7/19/2022 3:00:13 PM
Modified: 7/19/2022 2:59:48 PM

For communities grappling with vacant and dilapidated mill buildings, Orange’s recent cereal factory fire serves as a stark reminder that action is needed to safeguard property in anticipation of potential disaster.

The fire, which destroyed the vacant former cereal factory at 16-36 West River St. and damaged at least three nearby buildings on June 4, occurred at a time when surrounding communities had already been deep into the process of addressing similarly vacant and dilapidated structures within their towns.

Erving, for example, concluded a failed Request for Proposals period for redevelopment of its former International Paper Mill property on May 13, less than a month before the fire. Meanwhile, Montague has been engaged in “Canal District Master Planning” to determine the future of the Strathmore Mill complex, which has been vacant for roughly 15 years, according to a technical assistance panel report by the Urban Land Institute.

Town officials in each of these communities said that while they already felt a sense of urgency surrounding these projects, Orange’s fire might serve to illustrate their high-stakes nature to the broader public.

Similarities between situations in Orange and surrounding towns extend beyond simply having dilapidated mill buildings. Erving and Montague have also dealt specifically with their own fire histories, which town officials referenced in the wake of the factory blaze in Orange.

“It’s happened to us before and we know it’s a very real possibility with any abandoned building,” Erving Assistant Town Planner Mariah Kurtz said, referring to the Usher Paper Mill fire that destroyed one of the complex’s buildings in 2007.

In addition to an arson fire destroying Building 10 of the Strathmore Mill complex in 2007, memories of a fire that occurred a decade later at the former Railroad Salvage building at 11 Power St. remain fresh in residents’ minds.

“(Hearing about Orange’s fire) immediately sent me back to my first month on the job in Montague where we experienced a fire at the Railroad Salvage building,” Montague Town Administrator Steve Ellis said. “That particular moment is when the liability associated with unoccupied town properties really struck home for me.”

Town officials have said Orange is ineligible for public grants to offset cleanup costs for the cereal factory fire because it does not own the property. As of late June, the town had spent more than $400,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money on the cleanup, which is projected to cost $3.8 million.

Three juveniles ranging in age from 12 to 14 were identified late on June 6 and face criminal charges in connection with the suspected arson.

Kurtz said that one of her first thoughts after hearing the news about Orange’s fire was the town’s role in dealing with the aftermath.

“I immediately thought of the hard work that all of the municipal officials in Orange do all the time and that they’d have to deal with the repercussions of that,” she said.

Ellis explained that municipalities are often “left as the owners of last resorts,” as private owners “fail in their business plans and fail in their obligations” to otherwise be responsible. Town governments then “feel compelled to” take control of affected properties in an effort to protect residents from what could otherwise become an unmaintained safety hazard.

“I think every town has a fear that if a building is abandoned like that, there’s a real fear that something could happen,” Kurtz said.

“This is where we really need the state to step up with programs that help towns realize promise or mitigate risk,” Ellis said.

Kurtz and Ellis each said efforts to be proactive within their respective towns remain largely the same following Orange’s fire.

“I think recognizing that this can happen is not anything new for us,” Kurtz said, noting that the town conducts “regular patrols” of the International Paper Mill property to keep it as safe as possible.

“We are really working through the same set of procedures that we were focused on prior to the Orange fire,” Ellis said. “We’ve understood for some time that the timeline for redevelopment (of the Strathmore Mill complex) has been growing short and that we need to plan for redevelopment, demolition or a combination of both. We can’t control which of the two it’s going to be because we don’t have the capital to exercise that control.”

Ellis noted that without a tragedy such as Orange’s fire, it can be “not always easy to realize that value” of properly redeveloping or otherwise addressing dilapidated properties.

“I do think that it can reframe for the public what the repercussions of not having a property developed or having the building demolished can be,” Kurtz said.

Erving intends to hold a public forum to discuss the future of the International Paper Mill by the end of summer. Montague will hold its second Canal District Community Workshop on Tuesday, July 26, at 6:30 p.m. at Town Hall, following a well-attended first workshop on May 24.

Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-772-0261, ext. 261 or jmendoza@recorder.com.


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