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SubTropolis Offers Deep Reasons to Locate Underground

Steve Stackhouse-Kaelble (July 2012)
One SubTropolis tenant applies spray-on bed liner to Ford pickup trucks, a task that can only happen if the truck is not too hot and not too cold, and most important, not wet. “We built a parking lot for 270 vehicles,” Ringer says, and that allows pickups to sit there at just the right temperature, drying out and waiting for their turn to have the bed liner applied — no time wasted waiting for a truck that was stored outside to dry off or get to room temperature. The same advantage has lured another supplier that applies corporate decals to commercial vehicles. One SubTropolis tenant applies spray-on bed liner to Ford pickup trucks, a task that can only happen if the truck is not too hot and not too cold, and most important, not wet. “We built a parking lot for 270 vehicles,” Ringer says, and that allows pickups to sit there at just the right temperature, drying out and waiting for their turn to have the bed liner applied — no time wasted waiting for a truck that was stored outside to dry off or get to room temperature. The same advantage has lured another supplier that applies corporate decals to commercial vehicles.
If your job includes making utility payments for your business location, the record heat of the summer of 2012 probably had you thinking about scouting locations on another planet. What if you could eliminate that air-conditioning and heating bill for good, without leaving the planet?

That's one of the motivations driving businesses in Kansas City underground, where the SubTropolis development is pretty much what its name implies: a subterranean city. About 1,500 people go to work every day some 135 to 185 feet underground in a former limestone mine, doing light assembly and finishing work, warehousing food products, fulfilling orders for collector stamps, and various other tasks.

More than 50 businesses lease space within SubTropolis, which has about five million square feet of space built out and room for another eight million or so, says Dick Ringer of Hunt Midwest Real Estate Development, which owns the unusual development that claims to be the world's largest underground business complex. Down there below the surface - under traditional above-ground business space as well as an amusement park - is a maze of warehouse, office, and light industrial space, several miles of roads, a couple of miles of rail, nearly 400 truck dock locations, and more than 1,500 parking spaces. The space was hollowed out to harvest limestone starting in the mid-1940s, and though the last limestone was mined from this spot several years ago, there are similar (albeit smaller) underground locations elsewhere in the area.

Constant Temperature/Humidity and Low Costs
Cost is one of the big reasons for moving a business underground, says Ringer. Start with the fact that the temperature year-round is nearly steady, ranging between 65 and 72 degrees. Most of that utility bill you paid when it was above 100 degrees, or below 0, is nonexistent if your location is below ground. "You're mostly just paying for lighting," Ringer says. Lease rates are lower in the underworld, too, and so are taxes, which run about 30 cents per square foot, compared with a dollar to $1.50 on the surface, according to Ringer. "Overall, the occupancy costs are 50 to 70 percent less than with a surface building," he says.

But that's just part of the picture. The humidity is just as stable as the temperature, and tends to be significantly lower than above ground. That's one reason the U.S. Postal Service picked SubTropolis to store and distribute millions and millions of commemorative stamps, which definitely don't do well when the air is too moist. Those stamps and other postal products sold over the Internet or by phone are all fulfilled out of SubTropolis, making the Postal Service one of the largest tenants there, with some 200 employees.

The steady climate is ideal for food storage, as well - there's no wine in this cellar at the moment but there has been in the past, and coffee beans, too, among other delicacies.

Advantages for Auto Add-On Operations
SubTropolis is also becoming increasingly popular among those serving the auto manufacturing industry. It's just a few miles south of Ford's Kansas City assembly plant, and not much farther from a General Motors plant.

Automotive manufacturing partners are finding the controlled climate perfect for certain add-on operations. For example, one tenant applies spray-on bed liner to Ford pickup trucks, a task that can only happen if the truck is not too hot and not too cold, and most important, not wet. "We built a parking lot for 270 vehicles," Ringer says, and that allows pickups to sit there at just the right temperature, drying out and waiting for their turn to have the bed liner applied - no time wasted waiting for a truck that was stored outside to dry off or get to room temperature. The same advantage has lured another supplier that applies corporate decals to commercial vehicles.

Security can be tighter at an underground facility, too, Ringer says. Hunt Midwest provides 24-hour security, and can control who goes in and out through the entrances to the facility. That's another reason the Postal Service picked SubTropolis, given the value of such a big stash of stamps.

Environmentally Conscious
And for businesses hoping to be more environmentally conscious, going underground is a prime way to reduce one's environmental footprint. "This is the ultimate recycling project," Ringer observes. It's a reuse of a facility originally created for a different purpose, and reuse is one of the tenets of green business. Lots of companies and people are opting for environmentally friendly geothermal heating and cooling, which is essentially what happens at SubTropolis in a big way. "Just as important, stormwater runoff is zero," says Ringer, who adds that the complex likes to promote itself as having the world's largest green roof. And from a sustainability perspective, moving underground is just as valid as building a skyscraper in the battle against suburban sprawl.

Why doesn't every business go for an underground address? First of all, to be cost-effective, you need space that has already been excavated as a mine. Though there are facilities like this in a few states, most of this kind of space is in the Kansas City area. And there are size limitations that prevent some uses - ceiling heights in SubTropolis are about 16 feet, ample for many functions but too short for others, and there are limestone pillars every 40 feet or so. And as tenants will point out, every day in this world is overcast, to put it euphemistically.

But even though there's no sunlight - just an expanse of walls and ceiling and several thousand limestone pillars, painted white - there's also no bad weather in this city. Ringer says that's one of the things he hears that employees miss if they take a different job somewhere above ground. "Here, you drive in and park underground," he says. No scraping ice from the windshield and climbing into a cold car at the end of the workday. "And we had a lot of days over 100 this summer, but here you end your workday and your car's 70 degrees."
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