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Landmark Fletcher Building gets a modern makeover

AYER – Through a mix of public and private funding and financing, and thanks to the vision of a Groton husband and wife, the “Nutting” or “Fletcher” building at 49 Main St. has been reborn.

A crowd of well-wishers gathered Tuesday morning at the corner of Main and Pleasant streets in Ayer for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Front and center were Robert and Janice France, principals of Bonnet Realty LLC of Shirley.

France thanked the officials, bankers and contractors on hand, including architect Laurie Crockett of Concord “for her beautiful design.”

France said the project was a “great partnership” and praised Ayer Economic Development Director David Maher for “walking us through the whole process.”

The couple took the plunge in August 2010 and bought the 1872 vintage building from the estate of Richard T. Fletcher, the late proprietor of the former family-run Fletcher’s Clothing Store, for $150,000.

Though the building is assessed at $193,300, the aged mixed-use structure was in need of tender loving care — and a lot of money.

France thanked Maher for helping his family transition in as the new stewards of Ayer’s prominent historical asset and in helping assemble the necessary mix of local, state and private grants and loans.

At the May 9, 2011, Ayer annual Town Meeting, voters approved Bonnet’s request for a $250,000 Community Preservation Act grant. The renovation project satisfied two of the CPA’s four core missions: the preservation of historical sites and the creation of affordable housing. (The others are the preservation of open space and creation of outdoor recreation facilities.)

While honoring the building’s historical characteristics, Bonnet created six single-bedroom affordable rental units above the retail space. France said that three of the six apartment units are already spoken for, with those tenants expected to move in Sept. 1

The 2,400 square feet of retail space is sub-dividable or available for lease to one larger tenant.

The project also received a $750,000 Department of Housing and Community Development grant which was administered by the Ayer Economic Development Office. DHCD Associate Director of Community Services Leverett Wing appeared on behalf of the Patrick Administration and said the project created “a lot of buzz” in his office and resulted in a “win-win for everybody.”

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge said the creation of affordable housing within walking distance of the Fitchburg Commuter rail line (across Main Street), the Nashua River Rail Trail bike path and the proximity of walkable services was a stellar example of the governor’s Smart Growth development initiative.

The project benefits “not only for the downtown of Ayer but the whole community,” Eldridge said. The awarding of the DHCD state grant for an Ayer project goes miles to dispel any talk that DHCD funding “only goes to Boston,” he said.

To ensure handicapped access to the first floor of the building, the Town of Ayer agreed to permit the developers to build a gently-sloping ramp to the side door atop the public sidewalk so as to preserve the appearance of the front of the historical building. Ayer Disabilities Commission Chairman Tom Sylvester said the ramp will be a benefit “for handicapped people but also for all people.”

Ayer Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand noted the large stone built into the third floor of the façade which reads “Nutting – 1872.” Pontbriand said the building was built a year after the Town of Ayer was incorporated in 1871.

On a sunny morning, Pontbriand said, it was great to see the Fletcher Building “is going to have such a bright future going forward.”

Before the ribbon was cut, France paused to thank his neighbors and major downtown landlords Calvin Moore (for providing “good advice” on the project) and Phil Berry for making a personal and poignant gift.

Berry presented France with a vintage Fletcher Clothing Store box at the Dec. 14 ribbon-cutting ceremony to launch the building renovation project. Inside the box was a matching yellow striped tie and pocket kerchief that had belonged to Berry’s father. France said the Fletcher price tag was still attached — $1.

With the heavy renovation work now done via Frances Senate Construction Corporation, France slipped off the tie and handed it to his wife for safekeeping — a memento of the journey they embarked on.

Then Janice France picked up the scissors, flanked by her husband and one of their sons, Brandon France, to cut the red ribbon. Attendees then toured the apartment units to admire the craftsmanship — both old and new — throughout the building.

There are high ceilings, large windows, hardwood floors, gleaming bathrooms and kitchens, and wide stairwells and hallways upstairs. The first floor is a blank slate, awaiting the next retail venture in downtown Ayer.

Those interested in leasing an apartment or retail space in the Fletcher Building should contact Joan Hauf at 978-302-6549.