The Yelm water tower’s new paint job is less than a month old and the project had to overcome multiple barriers and obstacles to be completed.
Spearheaded by Yelm Arts Commissioner Steve Craig, of the Save the Historic Yelm Water Tower nonprofit group, the project received $150,000 from the Washington State Legislature for the repainting.
The nonprofit hired Tracy Connally’s team at local business Connally Finishes LLC, to do the job, and the company wet-blasted, primed and painted the tower with tenacity over the last year.
“We were on it and off it for a year,” Connally said. “What happened is, when the funding was all a go, we started the project in September (2020) and we ran into some problems.”
First, a ditch was dug under the tower and they didn’t have the ability to cover it, so the project was delayed as they waited for an inspection, Connally said.
“We were on a tight schedule to get it done by winter anyway, but then the October storms and wind came in,” he said. “The rain wasn’t so bad, but the wind ended up just tearing up my containment tarps.”
So Connally said his team “just bagged it” until this spring, deciding then to do the painting by hand with brushes and rollers.
“We thought it would just be faster to do it by hand instead of going out and purchasing a bunch more tarps, cables and that kind of stuff,” he said.
In the end, the team painted three quarters of the tower by hand.
But there were other obstacles Connally and his company had to contend with to do the work sought after by many.
“Last year, I had a guy that had to take off a little bit of time for COVID, and my dad and stepmom passed away, so that took some time this year and last year,” he said.
In the end, the team triumphed and became proud of the end result, Connally said.
He said the project is worthwhile not just for the preservation of a historic icon for the city, but fiscally as well. According to Connally, the city saved upwards of $350,000 by painting the tower, because the finish of the paint will preserve the structure. Without the preserving paint, the city would have had to pay for the tower’s removal.
Yet there was a missing piece to the puzzle, which was the painting of the word “Yelm” on the structure. For that part of the project, Commissioner Craig knew just the man for the job: Michael Heaton, of Yelm, who used to own a sign shop in town.
Craig said he felt confident in Heaton’s abilities because he had been commissioned to paint the “Wolf Building 1924,” text at the crest of Craig’s historic Wolf Building, a task that Heaton excelled at.
In an interview with the Nisqually Valley News, Heaton said he started out as a sign painter in 1979 in Wisconsin, painting billboards by hand all over the state.
After moving to Yelm in 1989, and getting to know the citizens of Yelm, Heaton said he eventually became acquainted with Craig through art. When Craig approached him about the text on the water tower, Heaton was all for the idea, but wanted to test the heights first.
Sure, he spent years up on billboards, but he wanted to make sure the tower’s height fit into his abilities.
After journeying to the top of the structure, he knew the project would be a piece of cake, he said.
“I’m not afraid of heights,” Heaton said. “It was a great view. ... I actually had to use a ladder to get to the top of the letters, and I found it exhilarating.”
It took him six hours from the time he left the ground to the time he returned to Earth, he said.
“I’m very happy to have made my little mark in Yelm and to help beautify the town,” Heaton said. “That’s a big deal for me. ... It’s just something that I’ll never stop looking at.”
Painting the tower is just the beginning. Phase two of the project will entail computerized lighting of the structure, landscaping, fencing and an interpretive kiosk, details that will be afforded by a $350,000 grant from the state, Craig said.
“I have to say that our nonprofit Save the Historic Yelm Water Tower is absolutely delighted with the outcome of the painting,” Craig said. “And we’re also delighted with the fact that we were able to employ somebody locally to do the job. ... We’re trying to do everything as locally as possible and I think we succeeded in that regard.”
Craig, Connally and Heaton thanked those who have been involved with the project so far.