Subterranean storage center touts space, security

Tuesday, September 7, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:24 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

Jeremy Fike was a bit jumpy after he started working in Subtera.

“Sometimes we hear dynamite explosions, and the first couple of times we heard those, it was a little freaky,” Fike said. “But we got use to them pretty fast.”

Fike is the warehouse manager for discount furniture retailer Inside Outlet in Columbia. The company recently moved its warehouse operations into Subtera, an underground storage facility below Con-Agg’s Boone Quarries on Stadium Boulevard, where quarry workers sometimes use dynamite to harvest the limestone.

Although Fike had to adjust to these explosions, he couldn’t be happier working underground. Previously he worked in a non-air-conditioned warehouse, but because it’s 120 feet below ground, Subtera has a naturally regulated 60 percent humidity and is a constant 60 degrees.

“In the summer, the metal in our old warehouse just heats,” Fike said. “Now that we’re underground, we don’t have to deal with the temperatures or the rain and snow.”

Subtera, the only underground storage center in town, provides warehouse space for four Columbia businesses. But nearly 85 percent of the underground cavern is empty and available for rent by potential tenants such as the Boone County Commission, which is considering moving records there.

A visit down under

The paved road that leads into Subtera plunges into darkness. Lights hang from the 25-foot-high ceilings, but they illuminate only a short distance. It’s impossible to tell how large Subtera is.

Mark Wappel, a Subtera representative, said the company’s facility covers 1.3 million square feet— roughly equivalent to 32 football fields. Subtera’s chiseled roof is supported by jagged, 40-square-foot limestone pillars, each 45 feet apart.

The cavern was created as a result of more than ten years of limestone mining by Con-Agg.

When work on the mine began in 1985, planning included hiring engineers to ensure that the mine could be used for underground storage after it no longer yielded limestone.

Mining was completed in 1998, and in 2002, Subtera opened for business.

While Subtera is the only underground storage facility in the Columbia area, similar facilities have been developed in other parts of Missouri due to the deep, stable limestone bedrock that covers much of the state.

Tim Bosler is a leasing specialist with Hunt Midwest, which operates a 5 million-square-foot underground business complex in Kansas City. Bosler estimates there is more than 100 million square feet of underground development in that city alone.

Wappel explained that the underground facilities have several benefits over aboveground developments. The quarries are able to sell the limestone they mine to cover expenses and don’t have to pay for air-conditioning or heating. Because of this, belowground warehouse space costs one-third of what comparable aboveground space costs.

Also, Wappel said that Subtera offers companies unparalleled security.

“A tornado could go overhead and wipe out dozens of buildings, and down here, we wouldn’t even know about it,” Wappel said. “This facility is very, very safe.”

Out of sight, out of mind

Because it’s underground, however, Subtera is also well-hidden from perspective customers. Fike said Inside Outlet learned of Subtera only because Wappel’s brother, Andy, did some contracting work on Inside Outlet’s showrooms.

Only 400,000 feet of Subtera has been developed so far, and 200,000 square feet of this space is leased to four tenants: Inside Outlet, Integrated Solutions, Love Box Co., and Underground Records Management LLC, a records storage company owned by Con-Agg.

Unilever Home and Personal Care, had leased 280,000 square feet of warehouse space from Subtera in 2002, but moved out at the end of its eighteen month lease to be closer to a Wal-Mart distribution center in southern Illinois, leaving 1.1 million square feet of Subtera’s facility unoccupied.

Larry Moore, co-CEO of Con-Agg, said he’s working with Regional Economic Development Inc. and Realtors to get the word out about Subtera’s services. He said he’s talking to several companies that are considering leasing space from Subtera, including the County Commission.

“It is a great opportunity for Columbia to have this type of resource here,” Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller said. “It’s safe and temperature controlled, and they seem to offer competitive prices. They have a great set-up there.”

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