Hopeful signs

Orange charts path to green future

Recorder/Mike Phillips
Orange town offcials are developing new ideas to restore the cash-strapped town's fortunes by encouraging eco-tourism and creative economy businesses.

Recorder/Mike Phillips Orange town offcials are developing new ideas to restore the cash-strapped town's fortunes by encouraging eco-tourism and creative economy businesses.

ORANGE — As a teenager in the 1990s, Brian Eno was one of hundreds of Orange Revitalization Program volunteers spending afternoons and weekends upgrading bridges, downtown areas and parks to attract new businesses and residents to town.

But when the grants funding the program dried up, volunteers dwindled to a handful, and were forced to abandon many of their plans.

The old mill buildings the group wanted to revitalize stood vacant, roads slowly deteriorated, and the glassy waters of the Millers River flowed largely undisturbed through town.

Problems escalated several years ago when Orange was rocked by one economic blow after the next – declining state aid, run-away costs for fuel, utilities and insurance, and a level tax base.

Now president of ORP, Eno gathered members together at the Millers River Café several weeks ago to meet two new community leaders he hopes to partner with to make some big and lasting changes in Orange.

Town Administrator Diana Schindler and Community Development Director Kevin Kennedy shared their plans for the town.

Kennedy sat in front of a large aerial map of Orange, describing his ideas for promoting Orange as a great place to start environmentally friendly businesses that draw eco- and cultural tourism to town.

He also wants to update parks and plant saplings that will mature into stately elms gracing roadways to welcome tourists and shoppers.

He calls the overall big plan, “Going from Orange to Green.”

Community leaders and ORP members munched sandwiches as they strained to see what was written in the “little black bubbles” on the aerial map that contained Kennedy’s ideas for bringing new business into town.

While the printed schematic reflected a significant amount of work and planning, it was for Kennedy “all in pencil” — a way to inspire residents and leaders to brainstorm new and better ideas.

“I love that people give us feedback about the map” on the town’s Facebook page, he said. As Kennedy pointed to one of the little black bubbles, he said, “It’s no big deal if that’s a dumb idea.”

Some of the bubbles represent enterprises already under way, such as paddling tours and boat rentals at the new town boathouse on the Millers River.

Other ideas run a little farther out along the edge of imagination, including:

∎ a “Co-hop” that supports the development of new breweries and microbreweries.

∎ Renovating the old Foundry to incubate artisanal businesses.

∎ “Hipster” mill flats at Carol’s Corner.

∎ An indoor bike track and climbing wall.

∎ Artistic crosswalks designed by residents and regional artists.

Kennedy said some of his ideas may be a bit of a stretch for many people who think of Orange as being interminably burdened with financial woes.

He admitted one of his biggest challenges is changing attitudes he sometimes describes as “Eyoreish.”

“Ever since the factories shut down, Orange has sat in a stagnant place,” he said. “But the old buildings have character … Orange has stayed the same — that is the best thing that could have happened.”

Surrounded by forest and farmland, with a river running through downtown, “Orange has natural resources other towns would die for,” he added.

Kennedy recoils when people suggest that Orange could be like other towns that have built a reputation for eco- or cultural tourism.

“Orange has its own identity ... Some day people around the state will say, ‘If we do this, we’ll be like Orange.’”

Schindler cautioned that Orange has “very low resources ... it’s a slow, slow process to rebuild … it’s like taking three steps forward and two steps back.”

After the meeting she said, “When he says we’re going from Orange to Green, that’s wonderful but I hope that ‘green’ means money” as well as park foliage and ecologically sustainable businesses. “I like the idea that green can encompass many things.”

“Kevin is doing an amazing job,” she added. “We are lucky to have him seeking new funding and pulling these ideas together.”

Residents and leaders attending the event were also supportive of Kennedy’s plans.

After studying the aerial map, Karl Bittenbender, a former leader of the North Quabbin Chamber of Commerce, said “I looked at Kevin’s plan on Facebook ... It’s stunning as it’s captured dreams that a lot of people have had in town for a long time.”

“Tourism is the second largest industry in Massachusetts,” said state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg. “We don’t tell towns what to do, but once they know what they want to do, we’re there to help them.”

Eno pointed to several people around the room. “Just look around you — Judy Miller runs this café and Bruce Scherer and his wife are starting a goat dairy. These are the kind of small businesses Kevin is talking about — we have them already — we just need more.”

“I get the feeling people don’t believe things can change,” said resident Kim Marshall. “We just need to show them it can be done and get some momentum going ... We got a lot of work to do, but we’re going in the right direction.”

Later Selectmen’s Chairwoman Kathy Reinig said, “We need to get the word out what a great time it is to invest in Orange and how exciting it is to ... be a part of the process as we develop the town ... you invest now and you grow with us.”

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