Auto body to fix up former foundry

A1 Auto Paint and Body in Tulare plans to open a new location at old Waterman foundry site in Exeter

EXETER – A local business owner is fixing up a vacant property which once made Exeter a household name in the world.

On July 15, the Exeter Planning Commission approved a permit allowing an auto repair shop to take over a portion of the former Waterman Foundry. City Planner Greg Collins said Calvin Cox, owner of A1 Auto Paint and Body Repair in Tulare, will be converting the old foundry office into a 4,900 square foot office, located at 515 S. G St., and restrooms for a new auto repair shop location.

“This is the first substantial applicant for that property,” Collins said.

Cox plans to do both auto body repair and paint out of the Exeter location. Collins said the primary housing for the business will be the old office building of the former foundry but the business also plans to construct a second structure, a 640 square foot spray booth, where cars will be painted.

The permit initially came before the planning commission on June 17 but the item was continued after the commissioners requested proof there was no soil contamination. The site was cleared of any soil contamination left over from the former foundry in a 1994 letter to Waterman President Don Appling by Cal EPA’s Department of Toxic Substances Control. The letter was presented to the commission prior to its approval on a 4-0 vote, as commissioner Joe Stewart was absent.

The company was founded in Exeter in 1912 by W.A. Waterman and initially manufactured agricultural irrigation equipment for Central Valley farms out of a small brick building near City Hall before moving to its foundry at F and Maple streets. In 1953, the company expanded into water control infrastructure products including large and complex cast iron sluice gates, fabricated slide gates and radial gates. Waterman also has operations in Lubbock, Texas and Nampa, Idaho.

And in 1969, then CEO Don Appling built the company’s headquarters on Spruce Avenue that transformed Waterman from a small domestic business into a global enterprise. The new facility allowed the company to make larger gates from 60 square inches wide up to 144 square inches wide.

By 1990, Waterman was Tulare County’s largest private employer with 470 employees. The company was such a large part of Exeter’s history that Exeter, A Festival of Arts commissioned a mural in its honor. The mural, titled “From Foundry to Field,” was painted by artist Ken Cardoza on the north wall of what is now Osborn Mortgage in 1998.

By 2001, the company owned manufacturing plants in Lubbock, Texas; Memphis, Tenn.; Boise, Idaho; Garden City, Kan.; Grand Island, Neb.; and in Cairo, Egypt. Waterman had thousands of employees and a worldwide sales force with representatives in 47 countries.

Waterman remains one of the most recognized names in water control manufacturing in the world. Their products have been used by Disneyland, Universal Studios, Suez Canal, Nile River, Cincinnati Zoo and countless others across the globe.

Operated by Waterman Industries, the foundry is where the irrigation manufacturing made its moldings and castings for water control gates and valves. The plant was shut down in 2002 as Waterman was trying to try and cut costs for the worldwide leader in irrigation equipment manufacturing. More than 50 employees were laid off and the work was transferred to the company’s plants in other, less environmentally restrictive and expensive states.

The cost saving measure ended up costing the company more money in delays and decreased production. The company went deep into debt ($19 million) to try and make up for lost production and orders but eventually ended up downsizing at its headquarters on Spruce Road just south of Exeter. About 180 employees were laid off on Feb. 6, 2004 as the company filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The property was purchased by Bill Sario, CEO of Exeter-based Rising Sun Construction Company, in 2006. There has been no movement on the property since that time but it remains a viable industrial property with rail access, along Exeter’s truck route and still encompasses an entire city block on G Street between Cedar Street and Firebaugh Avenue.

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