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By Gregory Barros

Staff Writer

AYER — In retrospect, the town further consolidated its position during 2007 as the local hub of commercial activity.

Approaching year’s end, town administrator Shaun Suhoski sees Ayer as the engine of development for the region, including Ayer, Devens, Groton, Harvard, Littleton and Shirley.

Suhoski identified three areas as salient and significant in his characterization of Ayer: The town’s support in 2007 for retention of the commuter rail station, the development of additional parking facilities at the Rail Trail and on Central Avenue, and business investment downtown and elsewhere.

“The voters recognized the need to maintain our connection with the commuter rail at town meeting in May and so did the state and federal governments more recently,” Suhoski said.

“The Patrick administration recently approved $75 million and the federal Small Starts program approved matching funds that will help keep Ayer and its station an integral part of the program to improve the Fitchburg line.”

Suhoski said Ayer’s Parking Task Force, including Selectman Cornelius Sullivan, Planning and Development Director Christopher Ryan and more than 90 of the town’s citizens, provided leadership in developing a hybrid parking solution that attracted the attention of both the commonwealth and the federal government.

“That partnership helped produce a parking solution that’s consistent with our town’s and our region’s smart growth objectives, while at the same time serving the needs of our region’s commuters,” he said.

“The approval of state and federal financial support indicates both governments recognize the value of Ayer’s position in supporting multiple modes of transportation in a single hub.

“Parking at the Rail Trail end of Main Street and at the Central Avenue end will lock in Ayer’s presence on the commuter rail line,” the town administrator said.

Suhoski noted that downtown Ayer’s historic role as the Nashoba Valley’s communications, commercial, industrial and transportation center will likely expand with the enhanced parking capacity the town supported in 2007. He attributed that status to the town’s busy downtown, with its plentiful retail establishments and busy Main Street corridor, its around-the-clock, full-time public safety infrastructure, and its train station.

“This year the parking task force’s work, and that of the Industrial Development Finance Authority in their project to enhance downtown parking, began looking at developing options on Central Avenue,” he said.

According to Suhoski, the Planning and Development Department began doing concept studies for a Central Avenue parking facility after the spring town meeting established support for the two-facility parking solution.

Suhoski said those concept studies will move into the feasibility and initial planning phase in 2008 as a result of the Executive Office Of Transportation’s initial allocation of funds, totaling $88,250.

Parking downtown is critical to the sustainable, “smart growth” model Suhoski referred to as “Ideal.”

He said within a half mile of the train station, a comfortable walking distance for many, 28 percent of Ayer’s population resides.

“There are 950 households, 56 commercial establishments, 34 offices or institutions and 11 industrial sites,” he pointed out.

“That’s the key to our model’s concept: Downtown as the place where our citizens, guests and visitors can commute, get together, meet, shop or work in a walkable community. That’s why the progress we made in developing a viable parking solution, the hybrid solution, figures so prominently in our progress.”

Suhoski said the town needs more parking to support not only commuters’ needs but also the downtown businesses.

He cited the opening of the Riley Design Center and the imminent opening of Ayer’s newest restaurant, 31 Main Street, as examples of Main Street additions in 2007 that went directly to the parking development issue.

“It’s like a rising tide; fewer vacant storefronts means more parking capacity is required throughout the downtown areas, including at both ends of Main Street,” he said. “Adequate parking capacity is an incentive for continued private investment in our downtown.”

And fewer vacant storefronts downtown in 2007 only enhances Ayer’s role as the engine of development for surrounding communities, especially in terms of job creation.

“It builds on the 24/7 character of the town’s role as the hub of activity for its surrounding towns,” Suhoski added.

He also pointed out that in 2007, the town’s Sign and Façade Improvement Program played a significant role in expediting the renovations and improvements on the Page-Moore and Spaulding buildings.

The Planning And Development Department leads the Sign and Façade Improvement Program.

According to Suhoski, the program provides 75 percent of the cost of improvement and renovation for the town’s qualifying businesses.

He said the improved appearances of Main Street businesses, as well as their capital investments, meant increased commercial activity at the center of the hub and that was good for the town’s economy.

However, not all of the town’s signal economic development events occurred downtown.

As important as the downtown is to the town’s development model, Suhoski mentioned examples of large-scale business investments in 2007 that occurred between the downtown center and Ayer’s northeast periphery.

In concert with the downtown developments in 2007, the Nashoba Valley Medical Center, with town meeting support, began a $50 million expansion of its campus. That expansion included the opening of the hospital’s medical office building and its Cardiovascular institute.

Suhoski pointed out that the hospital is the town’s largest employer with more than 500 employees.

“Not only will it mean additional revenue for the town, but it enhances Ayer’s prestige as well.” Suhoski noted.

“There’s a cachet attached to having such high-quality health care available in town. It makes Ayer that much more attractive as a place to live and do business.”

And there is cachet attached to a Fortune 500 company’s investment in the community as well.

Last week, voters unanimously approved the town’s support for L-3 Communications ESSCO’s (L-3’s) decision to invest in a manufacturing facility on Nemco Way.

Suhoski emphasized that L-3’s investment will add 265 jobs to the town’s economy.

“Those are high-paying skilled, semi-skilled, professional and management positions,” he noted. “L-3 also estimates the average compensation for those positions will be $50,000 per year.”

Suhoski added that L-3 forecasts that its employees will spend $1.3 million annually with local establishments for business and non-business goods and services.

“Ayer’s commercial and industrial base is larger than most towns of comparable size,” he said. “This year we’ve made significant progress getting the government and private industry to recognize the merit of partnering with us.”