AYER -- MassDOT continued thinning vegetation on the Ayer rotary this week. Meanwhile on the East Main Street island aside the rotary, inmates from the Billerica House of Correction continued leveling brush.
Now, as the holidays approach, Selectman Christopher Hillman hopes the island can be lit for the holidays. It will mark a productive half year's worth of work on the rotary that began when Hillman issued a challenge to businesses and groups to adopt an island.
The first island overhaul was performed by J&S Business Products of Ayer. The owners performed an extreme makeover on the island in front of McDonald's on Sandy Pond Road.
Then Wild West Landscaping of Westford cleared the scrub brush on the island between Gervais Ford and the Tidal Wave Car Wash aside the rotary on Littleton Road.
Hillman said the feedback has been terrific. "You wouldn't believe the number of people knocking on my door about the islands. I think they look amazing, too."
Hillman said he worked with Sen. Jamie Eldridge to have the state address the overgrown Carlton Circle rotary. "I told him the rotary hadn't been touched since I was in diapers," joked Hillman. "He arranged for MassDOT to do an initial pruning of the rotary."
After starting to clear the "jungle-like" brush on the island, Hillman said MassDOT contractors were to return this week to "take some of those monstrous bushes out."
Hillman said he visited the rotary last weekend. He said he found former selectman campaign signs deep under the accumulated brush. "I found one of my signs and stuff from years ago that's just been covered up," said Hillman. With more trees and bushes felled, Hillman said "I can't imagine what they'll find in there."
Walking around the island, Hillman said it's "shocking how big it is in there. It takes you a few minutes to walk from one side to another, especially now that it's more opened up." And Hillman said the island already has electricity, maintained by the Ayer-Shirley-Harvard Rotary Club, which pays to illuminate the American flag that flies on the rotary.
Hillman said he has learned the club supports illuminating the island for the holidays. "I'm a holiday guy anyway," said Hillman. Growing up in Littleton, Hillman said the town always united around the tree lighting ceremonies on the common. He hopes that same magic can rain down on Ayer starting this December.
"It's always been kind of a nice event in Littleton. They get a ton of people," said Hillman. "The feedback's been great, so I think it will happen this year, or at least I hope it will."
"There is an evergreen out there on the rotary," said Hillman. "It's amazing what got exposed. There are a lot of nice trees out there. So the idea is to have something small the first year and expand on it later."
"Christmas and the holidays bring people together. That's my theory," said Hillman. "The holidays are nice and it's kind of something nice for the town."
Hillman said the trend is catching on. T&M Landscaping of Ayer contacted Hillman and wants to clean up and edge the traffic island at Groton Harvard Road and Washington Street near the high school.
Hillman's own company, Hillco Heating and Air Conditioning, is going to adopt the traffic island between Wendy's Restaurant and Gervais Ford on the Carlton Circle rotary. "That little walkway is all grass -- or weeds, depending on how you want to look at it," said Hillman.
Hillman said J&S Business products have indicated they wish to stay aboard and shepherd their island again next year. "They went down and spread some mulch and planted some shrubs. It looks 1,000 times better," said Hillman. "They've had people come into their store on Main Street and say thank you."
"One of the reasons I ran for selectmen is to do stuff like this. Folks say 'You're gung-ho," said Hillman. "But sometimes all it takes is to ask the question. That's what it took for the rotary. Sometimes you don't ask because you say 'Eh, it's not going to happen.' Little subtle changes make a huge difference."
Hillman said after he was elected in April, he received a congratulatory letter from Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian. In the letter, Hillman said Koutoujian listed services that could be performed by low-risk, supervised Middlesex County House of Correction inmates.
Hillman said he talked to DPW Superintendent Mark Wetzel, Highway Foreman Doug Jasperson and Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand and filled out the necessary paperwork. In return for coffee and doughnuts in the morning and lunch at noon, the inmates have already cleared some brush and debris along the Nashua River Rail Trail downtown and were hard at work on the East Main Street island's brush.
"We've got them for two and a half weeks," said Hillman last week. Other tasks planned include clearing stored materials at the wastewater treatment plant, painting and litter cleanup.
Hillman said the assistance from the inmates has been swift and cost effective. "We sat down and made a list. We didn't know it would happen so fast, but it's been fantastic."