Athol lands $500,000 grant to assess Cass Toy Factory, York Theater

The former Strathmore mill complex in Turners Falls.

The former Strathmore mill complex in Turners Falls. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

The former Strathmore mill complex in Turners Falls.

The former Strathmore mill complex in Turners Falls. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

The former York Theater in Athol, which the town took last year for back taxes. The property is among the sites the town will be using a brownfields grant for site assessment work.

The former York Theater in Athol, which the town took last year for back taxes. The property is among the sites the town will be using a brownfields grant for site assessment work. FILE PHOTO BY GREG VINE

By Max Bowen

Athol Daily News Editor

Published: 05-24-2024 1:22 PM

ATHOL –The town has received $500,000 in federal funds to conduct 10 Phase I and five Phase II environmental site assessments along with reuse visioning and community engagement activities.

The funding comes from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to expedite the assessment and cleanup of brownfield sites in Massachusetts.

Athol’s grant funds will target the downtown area as well as the Millers River riverfront. Priority sites include the vacant and dilapidated former York Theater, the Microphotonics property, a former industrial property built in the 1920s that manufactured tools, and the former Cass Toy Co.

According to Director of Planning and Community Development Eric Smith, the Cass toy factory had burned down around 2012. Some site cleanup has been done, along with soil and water sampling, which showed potential contamination, though the exact nature is not yet known. Smith said that further testing would be done for the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls.

“We believe there are some underground tankers,” Smith said.

Of the entire site, 1.35 acres is owned by the town and another 2.2 acres, on which an old factory building used to sit, is still privately owned. Smith said the land could be used for senior housing. Among the work to be done is to determine if, and how much, asbestos is in the building.

Last summer, Athol took the York Theater property for back taxes. One goal has been to properly secure the site, as Smith said people were getting inside the old theater. Smith said the town is seeking funding for the demolition of the building in the next year or two. The Microphotonics building was a vice manufacturer and the property is divided into two sections, totaling 3.5 acres. Smith said the land is still privately owned, and a steering committee will be formed to communicate with the owner about the grant and assessment work.

“It would be a win-win at the end of the day,” Smith said.

Funding to Montague

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Athol’s funding represents a slice of roughly $34.65 million in brownfields grants distributed to 13 Massachusetts communities.

Montague has received more than $4.92 million in federal funds to demolish the former Strathmore mill property at 20 Canal St., bringing Montague another step closer to reviving the 1.3-acre mill complex after a 17-year vacancy.

Built in 1874, the site has gone unused since 2007, when a fire, determined to be caused by arson, destroyed Building 10 and damaged two other buildings, according to a report by the Urban Land Institute. The town bought the site for redevelopment in 2010, but due to the buildings’ structural degradation, has faced the task of demolishing it.

Town Administrator Steve Ellis announced the funding from at the start of Monday night’s Selectboard meeting. He said this would lead Montague toward its goal both to remove a “tremendous public safety and environmental risk” in the community, as well as its plans for riverfront revitalization.

“This is the critical foundational piece that the town has been working so hard on so many different levels to secure, that will allow us to move that project forward,” Ellis said.

Last year, the town spent $10,175 to bolster security measures at the blighted buildings, after an observed increase in unauthorized access. Selectboard Chair Rich Kuklewicz previously warned the public that the building was unsafe for entry, and posed a risk not only to those who decide to enter, but also to first responders attempting to rescue those who might be injured at the site.

While the town initially planned for a multi-phase approach to the estimated $7 to $8 million demolition, Ellis said in an interview Tuesday that the state funding will allow Montague to begin the design of a full demolition project this summer, working toward the goal of completion in 2025.

“In addition to all the other work we’re getting done, both the political and the grant-making work that went into this is a direct repercussion of this community’s willingness to invest in itself. ... This is a big deal,” Ellis said. “We are continuing to seek to secure additional funds that would be complementary to this, and we hope to be in the position in the near future to offer some updates in that regard, but there’s nothing guaranteed at this time.”

Max Bowen can be reached at 413-930-4074 or mbowen@atholdailynews.com.

Anthony Cammalleri of the Greenfield Recorder contributed to this report.