One of Southern Indiana’s oldest and largest pool and spa retailers will exit the market in early 2010.

Walnut Ridge Pool & Patio , a local fixture for more than 40 years, is in the midst of a $1.5 million storewide liquidation sale. It will be replaced by multi-store retailer Watson’s , which plans to open a showroom at the current Walnut Ridge site in Clarksville in mid-February.

“It’s a shame to go out like this,” said Lance Pitzer, Walnut Ridge president. “The folks I work with have worked so hard to make [the company] what it is today.”

With stores across the Midwest and into the South, Watson’s is one of the region’s largest and most visible sellers of backyard and recreational products and equipment. Its line of hot tubs includes Hot Spring , Caldera , Cal Spas and Viking, and its outlets carry a range of aboveground pools, chemicals and accessories.

Then there’s the Watson’s Girl — the company’s Indianapolis-based spokesmodel-turned-media icon, who assumed the role while still in high school some 15 years ago.   

Watson’s officials said their goal is to retain most, if not all, of the items and brands carried by Walnut Ridge, including BioGuard and Nature 2 .

What’s more, nearly all of Walnut Ridge’s 25 employees have been offered positions with the incoming company, said Watson’s President Erik Mueller, who is based at the firm’s headquarters in Cincinnati.

“This year it all worked out,” Mueller said of the deal, which company officials had been eyeing for some time. “[Walnut Ridge owner] Doug Julius wanted to retire, and we wanted to expand.”

That expansion is expected to continue beyond Clarksville, with Watson’s planning to open a 20,000- to 30,000-square-foot store in Florence, Ky., by early spring, Mueller said. He added that there were additional markets of interest around St. Louis and elsewhere in the Midwest.

The response from area retailers over Walnut Ridge’s departure was bittersweet.

“I’ve known Doug for 34 years and, while I’m happy to see him sell, I’m sad to see them go,” said Sandy Bradbury, co-owner of Bradbury’s Waterin’ Hole Inc. in Columbus, Ind.

“Walnut Ridge wasn’t a chain, but they certainly had things like marketing and customer service as priorities,” she added. “They had a strong association with their reputation. And their employees really stayed with them — that speaks volumes for their business.”