City's clock factories long overdue for an overhaul

Saturday, August 11, 2012
Waterbury, CT

New Opportunities of Waterbury, Inc., owns this former clock factory building in which a tree grows out of a fifth floor window. NOW plans to turn part of the clock factory into a hydroponic farm, while another agency hopes to move a plumbing company onto the century-old industrial campus.

Time hasn't been kind to the city's clock factories.

Built more than a century ago along Cherry Street and Cherry Avenue, they were once home to a sprawling and successful industry that by the early 1900s produced 23,000 watches and clocks daily.

Today, they're vacant, hollow hulks, so overgrown that in one of them a tree is growing out a fifth-floor window.

Two city-based agencies — New Opportunities of Waterbury and the Waterbury Development Corp. — plan to redevelop much of the industrial campus. Some deconstruction work has been done for one of the projects, but the other still only exists on paper.

In 1857, the first Waterbury Clock Co. opened its doors, and less than 20 years later moved to the corner of North Elm and Cherry streets.

Between 1900 and 1907, it added six five-story buildings in the same area. By 1917, some 3,000 people worked there.

In 1919, the company began hand-painting radium onto the dials of watches, giving rise to a cadre of "Radium Girls" — small-handed women who, unaware or unconcerned about the chemical element's toxic properties, used their mouths to wet the brushes.

Dial painters started dropping dead of radium exposure by 1925, and within the next decade the company switched to less-dangerous phosphorous to illuminate watch dials.

The last watchmaker moved out in 1948 and the buildings were later used to make lingerie, neckties and belts.

The buildings have been vacant since 2004, and some radium still contaminates the property.

Several years ago, New Opportunities, the city's largest social service agency, took possession of some of the Waterbury Clock buildings. James Gatling, the ex-scientist who runs the agency, offered a radical plan — to redevelop the buildings to house hydroponic growing operations fertilized by farmed fish.

"We have completed the business plan. We're having it reviewed by (the state Department of Economic and Community Development) and UConn," Gatling said Tuesday. "After that we're going to try and put the funding portion of it together. Everything is still moving forward."

It has been a year since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded NOW a series of three $200,000 grants to clean up its Waterbury Clock factories. Even after an environmental cleanup about a decade ago, the properties are known to contain radium, lead, asbestos and petroleum.

Gatling said part of the EPA money was used to perform assessment studies, which are just wrapping up.

"Whatever cleanup we've got to do, that's going to happen probably in the fall," he said.

City records indicate NOW owns an almost 8,600-square-foot office building on Cherry Avenue, an old factory at 39 Cherry Ave. measuring almost 62,000 square feet, as well as another old factory on Cherry Street measuring almost 41,898 square feet. It also owns a small building at 186 Cherry St. that serves as the base for the Rivera Memorial Foundation.

One of the buildings, the one the tree is growing out of, Gatling said, has been too damaged by the elements to support his hydroponic farm plan. A building behind it will be used instead, he said.

"We hired some consultants that know the business, all about fish farms and the plants and that part of it," he said.

Also an owner of some of the Cherry Avenue industrial property is the WDC, the city's development arm, which is slowly proceeding on an ambitious plan to deconstruct the more than 72,000-square-foot building, recycle the materials and provide a parcel for the Bender Plumbing Co. to expand.

"We should be done with our portion by the end of the year as far as tearing the buildings down and remediating the soil," the WDC's Kevin Taylor said, adding a number of underground storage tanks have been removed from the property, while two remain with unknown substances inside them that are being tested.

There is no date set for the opening of either the hydroponic farm or the plumbing company expansion.

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