AYER — After delays, detours and red tape struggles, a $3.2 million federal earmark (funds set aside in the budget for specific purposes) that lingered in limbo for three decades has come home and a vision the town of Ayer held onto — and actively defended — all that time has become a reality.
Reportedly the oldest federal earmark in the country when the funds were finally released, that money, with another $1 million in state and local funding added in, paid for an ambitious local transportation project that in one form or another has been on the drawing board for 30 years.
Now, it’s complete, with new and upgraded facilities at the Main Street train station and a new downtown area parking garage, completed two years ago.
Located off Park Street, adjacent to the local leg of the Nashua River Rail Trail, a pedestrian pathway leads to Main Street, providing safe access from the parking garage to the train station.
According to Town Manager Robert Pontbriand, safety has been a priority all along.
“It’s been a main focus,” Pontbriand said during a recent ribbon-cutting event at the new Depot Square Park, where state and local officials and other guests gathered on a sunny fall morning to celebrate the successful wrap-up of the $4.2 million project.
“Good things come to those who wait, he said, referencing the town’s tenacity and the 30 years it took to get the project launched and done. He noted hurdles and challenges that contributed to the protracted time line, including eminent domain land takings and a lengthy legal battle.
Once underway, a series of specialists helped see things through, Pontbriand said. The park was the finale, completed with $250,000 from the state budget that he credited state Sen. Jamie Eldridge and state Rep. Dan Sena for securing.
“It was a collaboration,” Pontbriand said, citing public officials, contractors and others who worked on the project, start to finish. “Strong local leadership” was a key factor, he said.
The thank-you list included Assistant Town Manager Carly Antonellis, who took on a lead role, Pontbriand said. Also, a succession of state officials over 30 years, and Ayer town officials, past and present.
Select Board Chair Jannice Livingston has actively backed the effort for 10 years. Noting that the trajectory spanned two centuries, she thanked townspeople for their support and their patience.
Through it all, “this town … believed,” she said.
Pontbriand thanked the Montachusett Regional Transit Authority for administering the funds and two MART officials who “helped us stay on track,” he said: Deputy Administrator Bruno Fisher and Capital Projects Director Ryan Josti.
He also thanked other professionals who worked on the project: Hutter Construction Corporation and the firm Weston and Sampson, project engineers.
Depot Square Park, along with new structures fronting the train platform — a brick building with public bathrooms and a canopied way station — show that this junction isn’t just another commuter rail stop. “The town didn’t want a wait station only … but a place of significance that celebrates Ayer’s history,” Pontbriand said.
Comfortably set back from busy Main Street, the neatly landscaped little plaza could be a community gathering spot as well as a place to wait for the train. And it definitely dresses up the streetscape.
An Ayer company, Pinard Landscaping, did the grounds work, including curved block walls topped with flower beds that define the patio area, with benches. An antique fountain completes the picture.
A rescued remnant of Ayer’s past, it was built by the famed J.L Mott Iron works in New York. At the plaque on the stone base the fountain it’s mounted on dates it to 1897. Minus the base the 2,500 pound fountain has been moved more than once since it was installed in Depot Square at the turn of the 20th century.
Once used as a watering trough for horses, in recent years, the basin became a super-sized planter at the Ayer rotary, where it stood for many years. Removed during reconstruction of that space, the fountain was stored at the old fire station until it was resurrected as a centerpiece for the park.
David Erickson, of Erickson’s Antique Stoves, Inc., in Littleton, restored the fountain and got it in working order, with vintage-style add-ons from his shop, including the water-spouting fountain head.
Ayer Community and Economic Development Director Alan Manoian characterized the park as a kind of New England town common. Picturesque, practical, historic. A landmark, like the train station itself.
An 1849 edition of an old newspaper, “The Telegraph,” called the Ayer train depot a “great junction” with country wide significance,” Manoian said, linking stops in Worcester, Nashua, NH., Townsend and Fitchburg.
“It was a nexus of this great country,” Manoian said.
According to a historic sketch found on Wikipedia, Ayer was a major junction for both north to south and east to west rail lines as railway transportation spread across the country.
Manoian painted a dramatic picture of the past, with six locomotives “roaring through” town.
The railway didn’t just run through, it helped create a new community, carved from the town of Groton.
During World War I, trains transported soldiers from nearby Camp Devens and the Ayer station was literally “buried”by their numbers, Manoian said. In 1917 space in the square was all for the troops.
The J.L. Mott fountain — installed at the train depot in 1907 to serve “men and horses,” had to go.
Now, it’s back where it belongs, Manoian said.
“Thank you … for making this vision a reality,” he said, calling the completed project part of a “transformation” that is ongoing. “It starts in Ayer … where it always did.”