Ayer receives hefty state grant to address multiple infrastructure needs

Town earns $3.1 million MassWorks grant to spruce up western part of town

West Main Street in Ayer is not pedestrian friendly
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AYER – The Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development has awarded the community more than $3 million to address various infrastructure projects in the West Main Street corridor, a neighborhood the community has long envisioned for urban renewal.

Officials announced late last week the community received a $3.1 million MassWorks grant to fund multiple projects. These include comprehensive public infrastructure improvements on West Main Street to establish new housing and business development opportunities. The work is meant to turn West Main Street into a gateway into the Devens Enterprise Zone and another attempt to revitalize the town.

Alan Manoian, director of community & economic development, has been leading the team preparing the grant application and was ecstatic to see the town awarded the grant.

Speaking over the phone on Monday, Manoian detailed the origin of Ayer’s application for the grant that goes back two-and-a-half years. In May 2018, Manoian’s office conducted a Visioning Day on West Main Street, showing business owners and developers the potential of turning the “obsolete corridor,” as Manoian said, into a traditional New England village.

“I think that people working in Devens would very much like to live in close proximity to their high-paying jobs,” he added. “I also hope that property owners on West Main Street that have single-floor buildings say, ‘Oh I could do a multi-level building with residential or commercial business inside.’ We’re trying to introduce an 18-hour economy that’s really beneficial to people who want to live out and about.”

With the pathway to the former Army base in mind, a partnership with Devens officials seemed necessary. With that, Manoian’s office filed the grant application in a joint effort with the Devens Enterprise Commission and MassDevelopment, the quasi-state agency that oversees Devens.

Peter Lowitt, a member of the Devens Enterprise Commission, said that West Main Street leads to one of Devens’s main entrances and has done so since the 1900s. Lowitt saw the most “exciting” prospects of the proposed West Main Street Village are the water improvements, which include over 5,000 linear feet of new water lines, new wastewater lines and new storm-water management.

“This is an opportunity for Devens residents and businesses to have better access to Ayer either by walking, biking or public transit,” Lowitt added. “West Main Street is a very important element to our success and development.”

In order to prepare the street to adapt to Ayer’s plans, Manoian had to rezone West Main Street with a form based code approved at the 2019 Fall Town Meeting. The code, while leaves already existing structures on the street unbothered, allows new buildings to be built closer together and closer to the road for a more attractive view.

Another element needed to complete the application was a private sector residential development. Manoian said that Brighter Horizons Environmental, Inc., located at 201 West Main St., submitted a conceptual preliminary site plan detailing two mixed-use commercial buildings. According to the letter submitted to the Massachusetts Executive Office by Brighter Horizons’s President Jason Squeglia and CFO Shane Duval, the first building would have commercial space on the first floor and residential apartments on the second floor. The second building would also have apartment spaces.

“We believe the multi-family housing development we propose for Ayer’s West Main Street will immediately provide new quality housing stock in close proximity to a range of employment opportunities, and greater job expansion and retention in the Town of Ayer, and for the 6,000 employed at various corporations located at the Devens Regional Enterprise Zone,” the letter explains.

Manoian submitted the grant application in August. The grant is also expected to pay for other projects, including new roadway surface, a sidewalk network compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, new bicycle lanes, a bike share station, a new station for the Devens Shuttle Bus, new sidewalk shade trees and on-street parking.

“The Town of Ayer is pleased to receive this MassWorks grant in the amount of $3.16 million for the infrastructure and streetscape improvements for West Main Street,” Town Manager Robert Pontbriand said in a press release. “This grant will enable the town to transform this important gateway corridor with new infrastructure which will generate new economic development opportunities.  Additionally, this was a successful collaboration between the town of Ayer, MassDevelopment, and the Devens Enterprise Commission with the support of the Ayer Select Board and our state Legislative delegation.”

“This grant award allows Ayer to continue to upgrade our West Main Street infrastructure, improving our water system, storm-water management, and providing safe multi-modal travel for pedestrians, bicycles and vehicles,” Ayer Department of Public Works Superintendent Mark Wetzel added.

As relieved as he is to get the grant, Manoian can’t rest for too long. He said he’s planning on meeting with Devens officials later this week to begin coordinating construction plans. Still, it’s a satisfying moment for the Lowell native.

“I’ve been seeing this in my mind’s eye for four years,” Manoian said. “The village will become because everything is ready.”