Exeter museum may get $500,000 from redevelopment agency

By Reggie Ellis

After unsuccessfully applying for a state grant, the Exeter Art Gallery and Museum Association may have found the half million dollars it needed right here in Exeter.

Following the Aug. 9 City Council meeting, councilmembers will adjourn to the Exeter Redevelopment Agency to decide if they will promise $250,000 this year and next year to help complete the Exeter Historical Museum in the former Mt. Whitney Power Company substation at 125 S. B St.

The project, which began in 2002, came to a halt last winter when the association could not find the funding it needed to replace 16 two-story-tall windows.

"We are at the point where we need professional services," curator Chris Brewer said.

Brewer provided a budget to the agency members that includes $61,000 for professional services, $30,000 for architectural plans and drawings, $10,000 for preservation services, $20,000 for engineering services and $1,000 for permits and fees, such as air quality inspections from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. Brewer said professionals are needed to plan ahead for reconstruction, to retain as much of the architectural integrity of the building as possible, while still converting it into an environmentally habitable structure. One example was $104,650 to replace the windows with low-E windows that look similar to the originals but are far more energy efficient.

"While we are restoring it, we want it to be as strong and self-sufficient as possible," Brewer said.

Once the plans are completed the restoration project can begin. The budget included plastering interior walls, flooring repairs, stairwell replacement, lighting and electrical replacement, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, painting, signage and awnings. Labor and repairs were a total of $350,150.

"It seems like a lot of little things but they add up quickly," Brewer said.

Another $109,000 was budgeted for exhibit and display cabinetry, archival storage cabinetry, archival work stations, sunscreen film for windows and file cabinets and miscellaneous materials. A little over $23,000 was budgeted for demolition, 80% of which is completed and was done using volunteers. Demolition of the interior of the building was completed in August 2004, including tearing out the pink jail cell left from the old Exeter Police Department, the bathrooms and interior walls used to separate the former Recreation Department. By using volunteers, the Association estimated that it saved $20,000 in demolition costs.

"We aren't going to stop looking for funding," Brewer said. "Our hope is that we don't spend all of the money."

Brewer said the problem is that most investors are interested in supporting a museum after it is built. "They are skeptical when there isn't something to show them. When they see something completed that will preserve the history of their company, city or family, then they are interested."

The association had applied for up to $410,000 through the California Cultural and Historical Endowment (CCHE). Created as a division of the California State Library to administer funds approved through Proposition 40, CCHE could provide as much as $410,000 for Exeter's museum. Prop. 40, known as the "California Clean Water, Clean Air, Safe Neighborhood Parks and Coastal Protection Act," was passed by 56.9% of California voters in 2002 to preserve historic and cultural resources. Brewer said Exeter was passed over for museums in cities with larger populations.

"This is a short-term expense but a long-term benefit," Brewer said. "This is what [Exeter] is all about - preserving our history."

Boardmember Leon Ooley, who is also president of the museum association, said the building, along with Water Tower Park, Joyner Park and the Courthouse Gallery of the Arts, will serve as the cultural hub and grand entrance into Exeter's historic downtown.

City Administrator John Kunkel said historical preservation does fall under the guidelines of redevelopment regulations. "The money has been expended for all the other projects so it is there if the board wants to use it," he said. "If we don't expend the money, at some point we are in jeopardy of losing it."

Boardmember Joe Bomgardner asks if Brewer's estimates would be enough as projects often "become monsters that get out of control." Brewer said the numbers are accurate based on talks with companies, 25 years experience in historical preservation and his experience helping to set up museums in Kern County.

"Can this carry on its own?" Boardmember Jon Stearns asked.

"Well you don't see museums going out of business," Brewer replied. "One way or another there is money to keep them running if they aren't making money."

History of Building

The 50-foot-by-80-foot concrete and steel building was originally constructed as a Mt. Whitney Power Company sub-station in 1913. Mt. Whitney Power operated the sub-station until 1954, "long after it had become obsolete," according to history compiled by local historian and restoration project director Chris Brewer. It was then sold to the City of Exeter.

In 1955, the city commissioned a study for converting the building into a jail. Local residents and churches protested the idea and eventually it was abandoned. The building remained empty until 1958 when College of the Sequoias and Memorial Hospital at Exeter began working together to create a school for nurses. The classes started in September and the first class graduated 19 in October 1959.

The idea of creating a jail was later resurrected but this time was approved by the city council. In 1973 the city converted the building into a police station. The Exeter Police Department moved in during the second week of January 1974.

The Exeter Police Department was stationed in the building until 1994 when they moved into the former Nielsen Insurance office at 101 N. Pine St., where they are currently located. The Exeter Parks and Recreation Department moved into the building in 1995, until it relocated to its current location in a remodeled home at 314 W. Firebaugh Ave. At its Sept. 24, 2002 meeting, the city council signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Exeter Art Gallery and Museum Association to use the building rent free for the next 10 years. The association was formed when a group of local residents wanted to create a cultural hub in Exeter that recognized the city's history and artistic talent embodied by its already successful mural program. The association's first project was transforming the old Exeter/Farmersville Municipal Courthouse into a gallery. The first exhibit at the Courthouse Gallery of the Arts was held during Fall Festival in 2002.

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