Horticultural rebirth: Two years after fire, Smith Vocational breaks ground on new $7M building

Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School board of trustee members Michael Cahillane, right, and Rick Aquadro applaud during Tuesday’s ceremony.

Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School board of trustee members Michael Cahillane, right, and Rick Aquadro applaud during Tuesday’s ceremony. STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School Superintendent Andy Linkenhoker speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday morning for the school’s new horticulture building.

Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School Superintendent Andy Linkenhoker speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday morning for the school’s new horticulture building. STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

From right, Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa and Koby Gardner-Levine, a regional manager for the office of U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, take part in a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday for a new horticulture building at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School.

From right, Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa and Koby Gardner-Levine, a regional manager for the office of U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, take part in a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday for a new horticulture building at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School. STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

James Anspach, center, a horticulture teacher at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, holds a golden shovel gifted by fellow horticulture teacher Mark Nevin, left. On his right are horticulture students Chris Alexander, Erin Miller and Sam Jenkins.

James Anspach, center, a horticulture teacher at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, holds a golden shovel gifted by fellow horticulture teacher Mark Nevin, left. On his right are horticulture students Chris Alexander, Erin Miller and Sam Jenkins. STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Several city, state and education officials take part in a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday for the Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School’s new horticulture building.

Several city, state and education officials take part in a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday for the Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School’s new horticulture building. STAFF PHOTOS/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

A rendering of the planned horticulture building at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, with construction expected to last until summer 2025.

A rendering of the planned horticulture building at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, with construction expected to last until summer 2025. SMITH VOCATIONAL

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 06-11-2024 3:15 PM

Modified: 06-11-2024 6:13 PM


NORTHAMPTON — Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School broke ground on its new planned horticulture building on Tuesday, with plans to cut the ribbon on the finished building by next summer.

The previous horticulture building, which housed the school’s forestry education program, burned down in May 2022 after a riding mower’s exhaust came into contact with combustible materials. The fire was contained within the building and did not spread to a nearby animal science building, thanks to the fact that a firetruck was already on campus as part of a criminal justice course.

The school elected to demolish what remained after the fire and build a new horticulture building in its stead, but needed to come up with plans for funding and designing it.

“I tell people that I keep my hair short because of all the gray hairs that have formed over the last two years,” said Smith Vocational’s Superintendent Andy Linkenhoker to those gathered for the groundbreaking. “There’s been a lot of discussions and a lot of meetings, but all of those have led to today.”

Funding challenges for the school come from its unique position as the only independent public school in Massachusetts, with less than a quarter of the school’s students coming from Northampton. The school is responsible for its own budget and policy procedures, with a board of trustees elected by residents of Northampton.

“At the end of the day, the city of Northampton is on the hook for most of the expenses here,” Linkenhoker said. “So the challenge is, how do we justify expenses to Northampton if only 20% of the students reside in the city?”

The $7 million new building was paid for entirely through state grants and fundraising, with Capital Skills Grants from the state making up more than half of the total cost. The school also received $275,000 from an economic bond bill earmarked by state Sen. Jo Comerford and a $150,000 donation from Smith College. Around $750,000 for the building came from local fundraising.

Trustee Rick Aquadro said the new building would have a wooden frame made out of local wood to highlight native tree species throughout the region, rather than a metal building that would have been cheaper to produce.

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“We thought about a pre-engineered metal building,” Aquadro said. “[But] that doesn’t really fit in the vision of horticulture and forestry programs.”

Mark Nevin, a horticulture and forestry teacher at the school, presented fellow horticulture teacher James Anspach and several students in the program with a golden shovel during the groundbreaking ceremony.

“This shovel is made of steel and has been used by students here for many years. It’s very strong and made of a good foundation,” Nevin said. “Because of this, the shovel was able to survive being in the very heart of the fire. Now, like our program, it has been reborn anew.”

Once completed, the new building will contain new equipment and a more sustainable design plan such as improved insulation infrastructure. The equipment, paid for through grants, include a compact utility tractor, log splitters and leaf blowers. It also includes equipment for advanced manufacturing, such as a tool presetter and a saw surface grinder.

The event was attended by several state and education officials, including Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, Northampton Public Schools Superintendent Portia Bonner and state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa.

Elena Cohen, a district director for Comerford, also spoke during the groundbreaking, as the senator could not attend due to chairing a hearing in her role as the chair of the State House’s Joint Committee on Agriculture.

“We’re just really thrilled for all the future generations of students at Smith Voke who will get to learn in this incredible building,” Cohen said. “The young people at Smith Voke really are the future of agriculture, and we’re so glad that this building will be here for many generations to come.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.