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2013: Top stories of the year

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 30 December 2013 at 12:00 am

Photo by Tom Rivers – JPMorgan Chase closed its Albion call center in September after the company worked five years out of this East Avenue site, which was previously home to Washington Mutual. Claims Recovery Financial Services will be the new tenant in the building, which will house 750 workers for CRFS.

There was a lot of news in Orleans County in 2013. Orleans Hub has weighed the stories, and we have our list of the top 10. We gave preference to stories with impact on the community as a whole.

1. CRFS helps fill void from shut-down Chase site

It was devastating news in June when JP Morgan Chase announced it was shutting down its Albion operation and would lay off 413 workers by September.

Chase once had nearly 1,000 workers in Albion, but had gradually reduced its workforce over five years in Albion.

The company worked out of a massive former tomato processing facility on East Avenue. The site didn’t sit idle for long. Roger Hungerford, owner of the Olde Pickle Factory in Medina, bought the 60,000-square-foot site and started renovations in September for the new tenant: Claims Recovery Financial Services.

That home-grown company, led by Orleans County resident Jodi Gaines, announced it had outgrown sites in Albion and Medina and would consolidate its operations at the former Chase site, employing 750 people in Albion. As part of the move to the Chase site, CRFS announced it would add 150 workers, bringing much-needed jobs to a county with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.

2. SAFE Act triggers sustained outrage

Conservative talk show host Bob Lonsberry addresses a crowd of nearly 200 people in front of the Orleans County Courthouse during a protest about the SAFE Act on April 13.

In January Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislators approved the SAFE Act, which they said was designed to tighten gun control laws.

The new law, which was passed without public comment, was loudly protested in Orleans County and throughout much of Upstate New York. The Orleans County Legislature called for the law’s repeal.

Every town and village elected board in the county also formally opposed the new law, which was called an attack on Americans’ Second Amendment Rights. Orleans is the only county to have every town, village and county elected board pass resolutions against the SAFE Act.

A new citizens group, New York Revolution, formed and was active at local parades and community events. The organization is trying to unseat Cuomo in the 2014 election for governor.

Orleans County District Attorney Joe Cardone told a crowd in October that he wouldn’t prosecute “John Q. Public” for violating some of the provisions of the SAFE Act, including cosmetic requirements that now make some guns illegal.

3. ‘Concerned Citizens’ fight against sale of nursing home

Ondrea Pate, an employee at The Viilages of Orleans, and about 20 other people rallied in a rainstorm on April 10 for the county to keep its nursing home publicly owned. Concerned Citizens of Orleans County picketed on Main Street during many County Legislature meetings, trying to sway the body not to sell the 120-bed site in Albion.

In February, the County Legislature announced it would sell The Villages of Orleans, a 120-bed nursing home in Albion. The Legislature said the site operated at too much of a loss, burdening local taxpayers by at least $2 million a year with prospects for $4 million in annual deficits.

The decision prompted protests from residents of all ages and political parties. Many protested outside Legislature meetings, standing in storms. Two lawsuits failed to stop the county’s push to sell the nursing home.

A slate of candidates also ran trying to save the nursing home, but they failed to unseat the Republican majority. The Legislature formed a local development corporation to temporarily own the nursing home and to find a buyer for the site. The LDC could select the buyer in January.

4. Massive warehouse fire threatened Albion neighborhood

The fire at Orleans Pallet quickly spread through the building and turned into an inferno, threatening the neighborhood.

A fire on Oct. 17 destroyed a big warehouse and threatened to damage other nearby structures. But the blaze was contained to Orleans Pallet’s main warehouse, a huge Medina sandstone structure built in 1901.

Smoke from the blaze could be seen from 20 miles in one of the community’s biggest fires ever.

The fire started after a spark from a grinder caught the wooden timbers on fire inside the warehouse. About 150 firefighters kept the blaze from spreading next door to Empire Coating.

Shawn Malark, owner of the warehouse and Orleans Pallet, used the site to store wooden pallets, which he then sold to farms and other businesses. Malark’s main production building survived the fire and he has stayed in business.

5. Burglars terrorized community with summer break-ins

Police agencies in three counties worked together to arrest Jonathan Banks, top left; Isaiah Bonk, top right; Jasper Lloyd, bottom, left; Thomas Shingleton, bottom right.

Burglars terrorized Albion and Medina neighborhoods with a series of break-ins over the summer. The burglars would remove window screens or enter through unlocked doors, typically committing their crimes while people were asleep late at night.

Police from multiple agencies in three counties arrested four people in December who are accused of 32 burglaries in August and September, a rash of break-ins in Albion, Medina, Oakfield and Lockport.

One of the suspected burglars, Jonathan Banks, 21, of Medina, was arrested by Lockport police in September. After his arrest, there weren’t additional burglaries, police officials said. Besides Banks, 21, police arrested Isaiah Bonk, 20, of Medina; Jasper Lloyd, 20, of Albion; and Thomas Shingleton, 36, of Medina.

There were other high-profile crimes in the county in 2013, including a bank robbery, murder and attempted murder.

6. Lakeside closes in Brockport and Medina Memorial Hospital makes changes at top

Strong West in September opened the former Lakeside Memorial Hospital as an urgent care center.

Lakeside Memorial Hospital in Brockport, a site that served many Orleans County residents, closed in April due to mounting financial losses. The facility would reopen in September as an urgent care center.

It is now owned by the University of Rochester Medical Center, which renamed it “Strong West.” The site doesn’t currently have an emergency room, meaning fire departments and ambulance squads form Orleans County now have a longer transport for patients on the east side of the county. Lakeside handled 17,000 ER calls in its final year.

Small-town hospitals are struggling, and Medina isn’t immune. The hospital’s board of directors announced in June that long-time hospital CEO Jim Sinner had resigned after 15 years.

The board of directors hired HealthTech Management Services to manage the hospital and healthcare organization. In late October, the board hired Dolores Horvath from HealthTech to serve as CEO.

She said hospitals are challenged and there will be a shift to more outpatient care in the future.

7. Assessments spark uproar and worry

Carlton residents packed several town meetings this year, including this one in April, to sound off about assessments they say were set too high for many properties. The Town Board opted against reappointing the town assessor and is hiring a firm to establish values for the properties in Carlton. The board includes, from left: Dana Woolston, Joyce Harris, Town Supervisor Gayle Ashbery, Robin Lake and Jim Shoemaker.

Orleans County completed its once-every-three-year reassessment in 2012, and the new values were sent to property owners this past spring.

In Carlton, residents were in an uproar over assessments that showed big increases for many sites. Crowds packed Town Board meetings to complain about the assessments.

The backlash prompted the Town Board not to reappoint assessor Karen Adams. The town is hiring a private firm to help establish values for 2,400 sites in the town.

The reassessments painted a gloomy picture for the four villages in the county. While Carlton saw big increases for some properties, the villages collectively went down in value, which may be unprecedented during a reassessment for an entire municipality.

The village of Albion declined nearly $3 million, the biggest loss. The shrinking assessed values results in a smaller tax base to pay for services, likely driving up the tax rate.

8. Some changes at historic churches

The United Methodist Church in Medina meets for the first time in the former Apple Grove Inn on Oct. 27. The church transfromed the former restaurant int a modern church setting.

One congregation at a historic church in Medina left its building and moved to the former Apple Grove Inn, following an extensive three-year renovation.

Another congregation in Albion voted to abandon its historic building, although that congregation continues to meet there.

The Medina United Methodist Church celebrated its first service in the former Apple Grove Inn on Oct. 27. The church bought the landmark building for $100,000 at an auction. Most of the building was gutted, walls were taken out in some spots and new ones put in. The west end of the building was extended to accommodate the sanctuary. The project cost nearly $1 million.

It was a lot of work, and church members did the bulk of the construction, painting and carpeting themselves. The congregation of about 50 people had a final service at their old building at 222 West Center St. Then they walked or drove a mile down the road to the former Apple Grove.

In August, the First United Methodist Church in Albion voted to walk away from its 150-year-old building. The church faces about $1 million in repairs. The church is trying to find a buyer for the site and is looking for a new home. It will continue to meet in the building in the near future. The church is one of seven in Albion named to the National Register of Historic Places.

9. ‘Squirrel Slam’ cast media glare on Holley

The national media doesn’t often pay much attention to an Orleans County community, but for weeks leading up to the annual “Squirrel Slam” in February, news organizations from throughout the world were talking about a fund-raiser at Holley.

The Holley Fire Department for six years held a competition where contestants paid an entry fee and then went hunting for squirrels. Hunters as young as 12 could win prizes for biggest squirrels shot.

Animal rights activists protested and urged Holley to cancel the event. The Village Board and Fire Department let it continue and participation surged from the usual 250 to about 700. Outside police were brought in to help manage the protest.

10. Point Breeze wins ‘ultimate’ fishing title

Orleans County Legislature Chairman David Callard gives Narby’s Superette and Tackle owner Sharon Narburgh a hug on June 26. The Point Breeze community received a trophy and check for $25,000 after winning the “Ultimate Fishing Town” competition.

Orleans County has new bait to lure visitors for the county’s top tourism draw, its fishing industry. Point Breeze was named the “Ultimate Fishing Town” in 2013 by the World Fishing Network, topping 700 other fishing communities in the U.S. and Canada for the crown.

Thousands of votes were cast on-line in support of Point Breeze and the Oak Orchard River. It appeared during the competition that Cape Hatteras in North Carolina would win, but voting irregularities for that community led to WFN giving the top award to Point Breeze.

The title has been proclaimed on banners and will be used to market the area to more anglers.

“This can help us to stand out,” said Sharon Narburgh, owner of Narby’s Superette and Tackle.

There were other big stories in the county this year, including Holley Central School’s completion of extensive renovations to the junior-senior high school and elementary school. The district also built a new transportation facility, all-weather track and football stadium

Many of the downtown Albion building owners also painted and did other improvements to their buildings in the most extensive renovation spree in recent memory.