In 2020, Orange to focus on new school; Wendell, New Salem look to broadband access

Staff Writer
Published: 1/8/2020 6:12:09 PM
Modified: 1/8/2020 6:11:33 PM

In the eastern Franklin County towns, 2020 is expected to be marked by topics like education, internet service, recycling costs and recreational marijuana.

While the eastern towns of Orange, New Salem and Wendell — in addition to Petersham in Worcester County — share the Ralph C. Mahar Regional School for middle and high school, they have different elementary school districts. One of those districts, Orange, could potentially see a big change following the Annual Town Meeting this year.

Orange — School planning, marijuana shop

One of the biggest topics in Orange is the proposal to build one elementary school for all its students. Currently, the Orange Elementary School District has two buildings: Fisher Hill Elementary School for students in preschool through second grade and Dexter Park Innovation School for grades three through six.

The School Building Committee — in conjunction with architects at Raymond Design Associates and construction management company Hill International Inc. — have come up with a plan to build a three-story addition onto Fisher Hill, demolish Dexter Park and educate all students in the expanded and renovated building.

In December, the state approved the project moving forward into the “schematic design phase,” and the Massachusetts School Building Authority will ultimately fund the majority of the project — up to 80 percent of “eligible,” or necessary, costs.

Voters will have to approve the project at the Annual Town Meeting in June, then approve the town’s share of the cost as a ballot question in a subsequent special election.

The project includes a central “innovation hub” with a library, media center, science and art rooms and an outdoor patio in one space, as well as a new drive to improve traffic circulation, age-appropriate playing areas and strict security. The total cost was estimated at around $66 million in December, but the School Building Committee has been working to lower that number, and is clear that the estimated cost will fluctuate during the design process.

“I think we could wind up with a really wonderful building that people reject because they say, ‘You just didn’t do enough (to cut costs),’” School Building Committee Chair Bruce Scherer said, noting the committee will have to sell the idea to residents.

A new school is one of the ways town officials hope to attract people to Orange and expand the town’s tax base.

“Without this school, we will not grow Orange,” Town Administrator Gabriele Voelker said at a recent meeting on the project. “I keep telling people we might as well roll up the pavement because you’re not going to attract younger families to town without this school.”

Also anticipated in Orange is the opening of the town’s first recreational marijuana shop. Orange has approved several companies to either produce or sell recreational marijuana in town, including Silver Therapeutics Inc., which opened a pot shop in Williamstown last April.

Silver Therapeutics Inc. is doing construction at 5 South Main St. According to Chief Financial Officer Brendan McKee, the company is looking forward to doing business in the “heart” of Orange, and plans to open the establishment sometime this winter.

CEO Joshua Silver said the store will focus on offering a limited number of high-quality products, and will work closely with the town’s police department to ensure strict security and keep marijuana away from minors.

“The way I think of it is it’s less like a pharmacy as it is like a jewelry store,” Silver said.

New Salem — Recycling costs, broadband

In New Salem, residents are finally signing up to get high-speed internet access through the town’s fiber-optic broadband network.

“Broadband is still moving forward and close to live,” said Town Coordinator Nancy Aldrich. “We’re looking to go forward in the next six months.”

As of Tuesday at 9:30 a.m., 384 premises in New Salem had signed up to join the network, out of a possible 482 premises. Utility crews have performed “make ready” work on utility poles, and a broadband “hut” — the central hub of the network and its wiring — has been installed in the center of town.

New Salem, as well as neighboring Wendell, is using the company WiredWest as its broadband service provider.

Another topic is the proposed change to the contract between Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and operator, Waste Management Recycle America, which will charge transfer stations $93.50 per ton of recyclables that are sorted using the dual-stream method starting in July.

The change in contract has to do partially with global phenomena, like China no longer accepting recyclable materials from the U.S., according to Franklin County Solid Waste Management District Executive Director Jan Ameen.

In the past, towns actually made money when their transfer stations recycled items in Springfield. The change will affect all 19 towns in the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District, including New Salem, Orange and Wendell.

In New Salem, Aldrich said it will be difficult to figure out how to pay for the recycling service, and the change will have to be accounted for in the upcoming budgeting cycle.

“The recycling costs are going to be a big challenge for us,” she said.

For more information on joining the town’s broadband network, visit the town website,

Wendell — Broadband

Aldrich, who is also the town coordinator in Wendell, said the two communities “face many of the same issues.”

Wendell and New Salem share an elementary school, Swift River School in New Salem, and the towns have similar population sizes — Wendell had 870 residents and New Salem had 999, according to the most recent data from the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth.

However, Aldrich said it is difficult to predict, from a town government perspective, what the biggest stories will be until budgets start coming in.

Wendell, like New Salem, is also working toward getting broadband internet for its residents. Aldrich said Wendell is slightly behind New Salem when it comes to finishing its broadband network.

Wendell and New Salem have been working toward getting high-speed internet access since 2015 under the state’s “Last Mile” program.

The Last Mile program is administered by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, targeting the state’s last 44 communities without high-speed internet access. The program provides grants and ensures towns develop the legal framework necessary for a municipally-owned broadband network.

Construction of the network, called Wendell NET, is beginning this month, with the plan being to begin operations this spring, according to the Wendell Broadband Committee. The Wendell NET Hut, from which the broadband network will flow, was installed next to the town offices in the fall. For more information, visit the town website at and go to the Broadband Committee page using the link on the right-hand side.

Reach David McLellan at or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.

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