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Top story of 2016: Opioid crisis fuels crime, human misery in Orleans, region

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 31 December 2016 at 1:45 pm
Photos by Tom Rivers: Sherri Bensley, assistant director of prevention for GCASA, discusses commonly used opioids during a presentation on July 13. She said addicts get the drugs often from friends or relatives, “not the street corner drug dealer.”

Photos by Tom Rivers: Sherri Bensley, assistant director of prevention for GCASA, discusses commonly used opioids during a presentation on July 13. She said addicts get the drugs often from friends or relatives, “not the street corner drug dealer.”

In considering the top news story of the year, Orleans Hub was leaning towards Donald Trump and his meteoric rise in politics, winning the U.S. presidency.

That story dominated the headlines and the talk at local diners and on Facebook, but no issue locally has affected more families, causing untold human misery, than the opioid epidemic that is sweeping the country.

The addictions fuel many larcenies, burglaries and other crimes in Orleans County, said Sheriff Randy Bower.

“It’s a nationwide epidemic and we’re not immune to it,” Bower said on Friday. “It needs to be a top priority for us.”

Many people with no prior criminal history have appeared in the local courts after committing crimes driven by the pull of heroin and other opioids.

Many others have overdosed, with some dying.

“The reality is it is here and it is an issue,” Paul Pettit, public health director in Orleans and Genesee counties, said on Friday. “We have seen an increase in deaths to heroin and opioids. We are seeing many more overdoses. It’s very devastating with a systemic impact on loved ones and friends.”

It’s a public health crisis, Pettit said, and many county agencies are planning an aggressive strategy to combat the addictions in 2017.

Sheriff Randy Bower receives training in using Narcan from Diana Fulcomer of GCASA. About 20 people received the training on July 13. Narcan can help someone suffering an overdose.

Sheriff Randy Bower receives training in using Narcan from Diana Fulcomer of GCASA. About 20 people received the training on July 13. Narcan can help someone suffering an overdose.

Public health, law enforcement and mental health agencies will be part of multi-agency task force working on the issue in 2017.

The county will also be adding more drop-off boxes for residents to dispose of unused medications and sharps.

GCASA has been trying to educate the community about opioid epidemic. The agency has trained residents to give Narcan, which can take someone out of an addicted state. The people trained received a Narcan kit to use in case of an opioid overdose.

Kathy Hodgins, director of treatment services for GCASA in Orleans County, said during a July 13 community meeting that the opioid epidemic is biggest community drug crisis she has seen in her 20-year career, affecting people from all walks of life.

“This is the first time in my 20 years that one drug has caused such an impact in our community,” Hodgins said during the meeting.

GCASA officials said crisis has grown partly due to painkiller abuse. Many people become hooked on painkillers and then their prescription expires. Some will turn to heroin to get their fix. The heroin can be deadly, especially when mixed with fentanyl and other drugs, Hodgins said.

Christina Ashton

Christina Ashton

Tamara Ashton lost her daughter, Christina Ashton, to a drug overdose on June 27. Christina had been clean for 19 days. Her mother left the house for a 40-minute errand. When she came back her daughter was found dead in the backyard after someone dropped off heroin and her daughter took a fatal overdose. Christina was 34.

“I want people to know it can be anybody,” Tamara Ashton said during the July 13 meeting.

Her daughter started using drugs about two years ago. She lost too much weight, stole from loved ones to buy drugs, and would be gone unaccounted for often for two or three days.

She went from drinking alcohol to crack cocaine to heroin.

“She just wasn’t the same girl,” her mother said.

Orleans County started a program in the county jail to help addicts transition from the jail to the community. That includes connections to addiction counselors and shots of Vivitrol, a treatment that blocks the effects of opioid addiction.

“Every person that gets clean is less crime in the community,” Sheriff Randy Bower said.

The addicts also need to be connected to the community, finding a strong purpose through perhaps work, volunteerism, church or service clubs, Bower said.

Bower said the Sheriff’s Office wants to go to schools in Orleans County, giving presentations to students about the dangers of using painkillers without a prescription, and how they can lead to more dangerous and fatal drugs.

The issue has been in the news throughout the region, state and country due to the increase in overdose deaths.

In nearby Erie County, the community was on pace to have 357 confirmed or suspected opioid-related deaths for 2016, a significant increase over the 256 deaths in 2015 and 128 in 2014, the Buffalo News reported this week.

Orleans County isn’t at that rate, but Pettit said there have been several deaths and many overdoses this year.

No 2. Trump finds lots of support in Orleans County

Donald Trump shocked the political establishment in winning the U.S. presidency.

Donald Trump shocked the political establishment in winning the U.S. presidency.

Donald Trump pulled off one of the biggest upsets in recent political history when he was elected U.S. president. Trump was popular in Orleans County, receiving 67.4 percent of the vote, the third highest of the 62 counties in New York.

It was an intense election season, with Trump first winning the Republican nomination after vanquishing a field of 16 other rivals, including U.S. senators and governors. Hillary Clinton held off Bernie Sanders to secure the Democratic nomination.

Clinton was favored to win the presidency, but Trump rode populist fervor to victory. He will be the country’s first celebrity president, entering the highest office without serving as a general or in elected office.

The Orleans County Republican Party Committee was an early backer of Trump on Feb. 27, when about 60 Republican Party leaders gave unanimous support for Trump, then in the midst of a bitter Republican primary.

Richard Coleman of Eagle Harbor Road in Barre made this sign with his grandson. “Your putting your stamp out there, rather than somebody else’s,” Coleman said on Nov. 8 about the home-made sign. Coleman said he supports Donald Trump for his push to strengthen the military and boost the economy.

Richard Coleman of Eagle Harbor Road in Barre made this sign with his grandson. “Your putting your stamp out there, rather than somebody else’s,” Coleman said on Nov. 8 about the home-made sign. Coleman said he supports Donald Trump for his push to strengthen the military and boost the economy.

“He’s a businessman who has been very successful,” GOP Chairman Ed Morgan said on Feb. 27. “Government should be run as a business and not political.”

Morgan said Trump in person and on the phone is different from the bombastic persona on television.

“Yes, he’s a little radical and he pulls no punches,” Morgan said. “But in person he’s a totally different person to talk to.”

Chris Collins also made national news when the local congressman was the first in the House of Representatives to endorse Trump on Feb. 24.

“Donald Trump has clearly demonstrated that he has both the guts and the fortitude to return our nation’s jobs stolen by China, take on our enemies like ISIS, Iran, North Korea and Russia, and most importantly, reestablish the opportunity for our children and grandchildren to attain the American Dream,” Collins said on Feb. 24. “That is why I am proud to endorse him as the next President of the United States.”

Collins has been working as part of Trump’s transition team.

No. 3 Historic drought hurt crops, withered lawns

Photo by Tom Rivers: ALBION – This photo in late June shows a soccer field at Albion with yellowed grass. Many of the lawns, crops and vegetation suffered from a shortage of water during the summer.

Photo by Tom Rivers: ALBION – This photo in late June shows a soccer field at Albion with yellowed grass. Many of the lawns, crops and vegetation suffered from a shortage of water during the summer.

Lawns turned yellow, and crops withered when too little rain fell this summer. Orleans County suffered some of its worst drought conditions in a half century.

All wasn’t lost because there was some rain late in the growing season, and some farmers were able to irrigate crops.

“It was a bad year, but not terrible,” said Larry Meyer, director of the Farm Service Agency in Orleans County.

The yields did suffer from the drought. In 2015, the average corn yield per acre were 170 bushels in Orleans County. That fell to 130 in 2016, with some acres as low as 50, Meyer said. Farmers who could irrigate were able to have yields at about 200 bushels per acre.

Meyer said Orleans County typically gets 19 inches of rain during the growing season, from April 15 to Oct. 15. That was down to 9 inches this year.

The county needs at least average rainfall in 2017 to replenish the groundwater levels.

Meyer said he never has seen the local landscape in such rough shape as in 2016, with lawns and fields turned yellow from the punishing drought.

Lyndonville in July had to issue a water restriction advisory, limiting water to wash vehicles, and water for lawns or gardens between 4 and 5 a.m., and 9 and 10 p.m.

No. 4 Bank, grocery store close in Holley

First Niagara, which was acquired by Key Bank, closed in Holley on Oct. 7.

First Niagara, which was acquired by Key Bank, closed in Holley on Oct. 7.

Holley suffered a double blow in 2016 when Save-A-Lot closed on Sept. 17 and then First Niagara shut down the banking site in the Public Square on Oct. 7.

Both losses left community leaders scrambling to fill the void.

Holley had been home to a bank for at least 150 years, but that changed when First Niagara shut down the site at 51 Public Square.

The news of the Holley closure disappointed many in the community, including former Mayor John Kenney, who said it will leave a big vacant building in the heart of downtown, and also be inconvenient to residents, businesses and the village government officials, who have the added burden of traveling to sites in Brockport or Albion if they stay with First Niagara/Key Bank.

The Save-A-Lot store on Geddes Street closed on Sept. 17. The Pawlak family opened the store in Holley on Feb. 15, 2012.

The Save-A-Lot store on Geddes Street closed on Sept. 17. The Pawlak family opened the store in Holley on Feb. 15, 2012.

“The staff in Holley they have a rapport with their customers,” Kenney said. “We’re an older community and change like this isn’t easy for people to deal with.”

Save-A-Lot was the only grocery store in Holley.

“We recognize that retail business is changing,” Jerome Pawlak and the Pawlak family said in a news release, announcing the closure. “Competitive realities, a slow economy, and cost deflation the past two years in the food industry have forced us to make the decision to close the Holley Save-A-Lot Food Store. Unable to compete with these trends, we recognize the closing of our Holley location is the necessary course of action for us to take.”

The Pawlak family has been operating the Save-A-Lot in Albion for more than a decade. Some of the employees at the Holley store have taken jobs in Albion.

Holley did receive some good news in 2016. Home Leasing of Rochester announced plans for the old Holley High School, a restoration/renovation that will turn the site, which has been vacant for two decades, into senior housing and space for Village of Holley offices.

5. Apex pushes wind turbines projects by lakeshore and in Barre

Photo by Tom Rivers – Ben Yazman, Heritage Wind project developer, is pictured by the Barre water tower on Route 98 behind the firehall in this photo in early May.

Photo by Tom Rivers – Ben Yazman, Heritage Wind project developer, is pictured by the Barre water tower on Route 98 behind the firehall in this photo in early May.

Orleans County is eyed for two large-scale wind turbine projects. Lighthouse Wind, proposed for Yates and Somerset, has been bitterly opposed since the project was announced in 2015 by Apex Clean Energy.

Apex in May also announced plans for another wind energy project, this time in Barre. That project has faced little opposition so far.

Apex is working on the application for Lighthouse Wind in Yates and Somerset. That project has been opposed by a citizens group, Save Ontario Shores, and also official opposition from the county Legislatures in Orleans, Niagara and Erie counties, which fear the project, with turbines reaching over 600 feet high, could jeopardize the future of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.

Congressman Chris Collins has introduced the “Protection of Military Airfields from Wind Turbine

Yates Town Supervisor Jim Simon speaks against the proposed Lighthouse Wind project during a rally in the pouring rain on Aug. 25 in Somerset at Golden Hill State Park. About 200 people attended the rally in a downpour.

Yates Town Supervisor Jim Simon speaks against the proposed Lighthouse Wind project during a rally in the pouring rain on Aug. 25 in Somerset at Golden Hill State Park. About 200 people attended the rally in a downpour.

Encroachment Act” – an effort to ensure that any new wind turbines located within a 40-mile radius of a military installation will be deemed ineligible for renewable energy tax credits.

The Yates Town Board revised its ordinance for wind turbines by requiring bigger setbacks. The board also stated its opposition to the project.

Jim Simon, the town supervisor, spoke at an Aug. 25 rally against the project. There were about 200 people at the event, standing in the pouring rain.

“I am in this fight for you,” Simon told the soaked crowd. “I will remember this day and everyone of you who stood in the rain. God bless you.”

Apex is in the early stages for “Heritage Wind,” a project planned for The of Barre. The company has submitted a public involvement plan and intends to open an office in February for the Barre project.

6. Medina reels from death of school superintendent, and ethanol plant leader

Jeff Evoy

Jeff Evoy

The Medina community was death two devastating blows in 2016 with the deaths of community leaders in their prime.

Jeff Evoy, the school district superintendent for nearly five years, died on June 23, a day before graduation. Evoy, 50, had been battling a serious illness for a month.

Evoy started as Medina district superintendent on Nov. 1, 2011 after working as principal of Pembroke Primary School. He started his career at Albion as a social studies teacher and was a finalist for the New York State Teacher of the Year in 2003.

He welcomed the chance to lead Medina Central School, his home district where two of his children graduated. He helped push student achievement while the district reduced taxes, and also partnered with Lyndonville Central School on several athletic and extracurricular programs, including the musical.

Wendi Pencille, Medina’s Board of Education president, said Evoy was loved by students and staff.

“He completely embraced every aspect of the district,” Pencille said. “Under his leadership the graduation rate went up, test scores improved. His goal was to improve education for the kids and he did it with integrity and hard work.”

Joe Byrne, a Medina teacher and president of the Medina Teachers’ Association, said Evoy was well respected by teachers.

Michael Sawyer was instrumental in Western New York Energy coming to Medina.

Michael Sawyer was instrumental in Western New York Energy coming to Medina.

“He was truly a dream superintendent, who cared genuinely about people,” Byrne said. “Not every school gets the privilege of having a superintendent like ours.”

Michael Sawyer also was a key leader in Medina, running Western New York Energy. Mike and his father John were instrumental in bringing the ethanol plant to Medina. The $90 million project remains the biggest economic development effort in recent Orleans County history. The plant opened in November 2007.

Mike Sawyer was hiking with his wife on a remote trail on Cascade Mountain in the Adirondacks when he collapsed and died at age 43 due a medical condition on Aug. 18.

Mike succeeded his father as company CEO and president after John Sawyer died from leukemia at age 72 on Oct. 13, 2013. Mike followed his father’s example of contributing to many community causes.

“Mike Sawyer brought an abundance of energy and solid business fundamentals to his role as CEO of Western New York Energy that was evident when I first met him during the initial development stages of the project,” said Gabrielle Barone, vice president of business development for the Orleans Economic Development Agency. “I recall how he had the timely knack of bringing the right balance of humor into a conversation just when it was needed. We are indebted to both John and Mike Sawyer – they had the rare ability to see a potential and bring that to fruition to benefit the agricultural economy of Western New York and beyond.”

7. Pride Pak builds new 68,000-square-foot vegetable processing plant in Medina

113016_pridepak1

Pride Pak completed a $15 million construction project this year.

For much of 2016, a 280-foot-long building took shape on Maple Ridge Road in Medina, one of the biggest new builds in Orleans County in several years.

Pride Pak opened the new 68,000-square-foot facility in November, and it is staffed with 40 employees trimming lettuce and packaging it for salads for Wegmans.

The new building opened on a site that was vacant in January. The site has a new road, water and sewer infrastructure, and other utilities.

Medina gives Pride Pak a site in the United States. The company is based in Canada and also has facilities in

Mississaugua and Newfoundland. It is the largest vegetable processor in Canada, and 35 percent of its produce comes to the U.S.

Pride Pak is eyeing two expansions in Medina, with similar-size buildings. It expects to have 200 workers in Medina when the expansions are complete.

Pride Pak currently gets its lettuce, baby spinach, cauliflower, broccoli, turnips, carrots and other vegetables from Yuma in Arizona, California and Oregon. Steve Karr, company CEO, said the company wants to work with local growers in WNY.

8. Kendall school completes major capital project

Kendall Jr./Sr. High School was given a big makeover as part of a $25 million capitol project.

Kendall Jr./Sr. High School was given a big makeover as part of a $25 million capitol project.

The Kendall school campus received a major makeover with a $25 million capital project. The work started in 2015 and was completed this past year.

Students, teachers and the community gave the renovated school buildings enthusiastic reviews during an open house just before the start of the school year.

“I think the students will be excited by the new spaces,” Kendall Jr./Sr. High Special Ed teacher Len Pizzi said on Sept. 1 as he stood in a newly renovated classroom in the science wing of the school.

Most rooms in the science wing now have vaulted ceilings and exposed beams which give a modern, clean, industrial feel to the space.

Pizzi noted the vaulted ceilings are similar in design to those in other parts of the building, including the Commons area and the new cafeteria, which was completed in Phase I of the project.

The science rooms are also equipped with smart boards which, Pizzi said, make it easy for him to go right from lecture/note taking to an audio visual presentation of the subject being discussed.

9. Shrinking schools, governments share staff, programs

Photo By Mike Wertman – Coach John Grillo meets here with veteran Holley and Kendall wrestlers in the newly merged squad. In front are Jeremy Browe, Nate Schoonmaker, Coach Grillo, Tristyn Moyer and Branden Gardner. In back are Braxton Leary-Hart, Erik Balys, Zach Day, Dalton Moyer, Dawson Cutter, Brandon Stewart and Dylan Spellan.

Photo By Mike Wertman – Coach John Grillo meets here with veteran Holley and Kendall wrestlers in the newly merged squad. In front are Jeremy Browe, Nate Schoonmaker, Coach Grillo, Tristyn Moyer and Branden Gardner. In back are Braxton Leary-Hart, Erik Balys, Zach Day, Dalton Moyer, Dawson Cutter, Brandon Stewart and Dylan Spellan.

School districts in Orleans County continue to share more programs and services from extracurricular programs and sports.

Holley and Kendall linked up this past year for the first time with baseball and wrestling. The schools have also had a joint marching band.

Medina and Lyndonville reaffirmed their support for a shared football and boys soccer team in Medina, while Lyndonville hosts a musical with Medina students. The local districts say they are looking at more ways of sharing resources, even with some academic programs.

The cooperation also exists with some local governments. Albion Police Chief Roland Nenni also leads the Holley Police Department, and Albion village personnel work with Holley and Elba’s sewer plants.

Orleans County also is taking the lead in a new study looking at law enforcement services, with a possible push for a county-wide police force. That study continues into 2017.

10. Volunteers work hard to promote community

Volunteers from the Orleans Renaissance Group planned a first ever Farm-to-Table Dinner event in Medina on Aug. 4 that proved popular with 137 people enjoying the fine dining experience on a closed off section of Main Street. The event was a fund-raiser for Medina’s farmers market.

Volunteers from the Orleans Renaissance Group planned a first ever Farm-to-Table Dinner event in Medina on Aug. 4 that proved popular with 137 people enjoying the fine dining experience on a closed off section of Main Street. The event was a fund-raiser for Medina’s farmers market.

As local governments face diminishing resources for staff and programs, volunteers are continuing to step forward to run community festivals, and tackle other public projects including the painstaking preservation of important public buildings, such as the chapel at Hillside Cemetery in Holley/Clarendon and the Bent’s Opera House in Medina.

Volunteers also take the lead in organizing concert series and community festivals for the benefit of the the entire community. The Orleans County 4-H Fair, which draws nearly 30,000 people each year, is a nearly all-volunteer effort.

Volunteers coach youth sports teams, serve as firefighters and first responders, and contribute in numerous other ways through churches, service organizations or on their own.

Volunteers are filling many of the gaps, fighting to preserve the quality of life in the our county.

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