By Barry Morris
Some 150 years ago, pioneers with visions of a quick fortune swarmed the area of north central California, which is now Calaveras County, looking to reap whatever they could of the region's rich gold deposits.
In present-day Calaveras, another pioneer has established its own history. While this history doesn't date back to the mid-19th century, Calaveras Mini-Storage (CMS) of San Andreas, Calif., can trace its roots back to the early 1970s, when the self-storage industry was in its infancy and still largely unknown.
To experiment with the almost unheard-of concept, a local contractor in San Andreas built a few rows of cinder-block units at one end of town. These first units were built with additional height and extra-wide aisles, as standards for efficient use of space had yet to be established. Those were also the days before fences, gates, surveillance cameras and public restrooms were a part of the storage business, and the company sign and word-of-mouth were the only advertisements used.
In the mid-1980s, Diana Marler and her husband purchased CMS from its original owner. Marler now runs the business with the help of her manager, Sue Brackett. An expansion of what she calls "typical metal buildings" took place soon after the Marlers purchased the facility, and a second expansion was done three years ago. With the two procedures, CMS is now a 30,000-square-foot, 236-unit facility situated on 2.5 acres.
After being one of the area's first storage providers, there is now considerable competition, including two national franchises--"the big boys," as Marler calls them--establishing themselves in the area in the last couple of years. To compete with this, Marler is choosing to fight fire with fire by planning a third expansion. Another 2.5-acre parcel of land adjacent to the current property has been purchased, and the county has recently approved the plan. A contractor has been hired, and Marler is now in the process of buying the metal necessary for the buildings. When this expansion is complete, the facility's square footage will be nearly doubled.
In many ways, CMS remains one of the original breed of self-storage facilities. There are no climate-controlled units, and there are no individual door alarms--tenants are responsible for providing their own locks. "We feel that with our limited gate hours (7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily), cabling in our fencing, a resident manager, lights and so on, our security is adequate," Marler says.
Woven horizontally into the facility's cyclone fencing, the hard-to-cut 1/4- to 1/2-inch cable prevents intruders from entering by cutting through the chain-link fence. "I've seen that cyclone fences can be cut and peeled back, and people can get in and out that way," says Marler. "This way, if they're going to cut any portion of this, they'd have to squeeze their body through those five strands of cabling. It's very difficult to cut--they'd have to chew on it for a long time."
Not everything about CMS harkens back to simpler times, though. Today's heightened security needs make video surveillance a necessity. The facility's current system consists of two cameras--one at the gate and another inside the office. With another expansion in the works, plans call for more cameras to be added around the property. "I think it's very important that we keep up on that," Marler says. She also expressed a desire to build a more sophisticated gate system once the expansion is complete.
Marketing Efforts Escalated
In the beginning, the exterior sign and some word-of-mouth from loyal customers were the only advertising CMS owners felt they needed. But with increasing competition and other factors, a different approach became necessary. Today, CMS is prominently featured in Yellow Pages listings, and also advertises once a week in the region's daily newspaper.
But it doesn't stop there. It seems everyone who's anyone has a presence on the Internet these days, and CMS has now joined the ranks of cyberspace residents. The new site at www.calamini.com provides maps and contact information, describes unit sizes, security and other features of the facility, offers photos of the complex and provides special offers for those who mention the site. There are also links to local attractions and visitor information.
Though not done for marketing purposes, CMS has also added a major visual enhancement to its exterior. One side of the facility's original building, a 44-by-20-foot space known as the "Great White Wall," was deemed uninviting to customers as they drove up to enter and exit the facility. To add visual interest, Marler hired Jan Carpenter, a local artist known throughout the region for her window painting, to create a mural depicting the 49er Gold Rush era. Images of an old mining town, a horse-drawn covered wagon and a gold-panning prospector eventually emerged, covering the bottom half of what had been a starkly blank wall.
The mural's theme was obviously appropriate, but was especially so since the area recently celebrated its 150th anniversary. "I just suggested that theme, and Jan took it from there," Marler says. "From her sketches, I knew that she was the one for the job."
Customers Remain Loyal
Contrary to her fears, Marler has not experienced an exodus of customers caused by the presence of new, national storage operators establishing themselves in the area. "That was my big scare," says Marler. "I just thought I'd see customers going away in droves, and I have not. A good part of the reason for that is our manager, Sue Brackett. She's very well liked and respected here, and that really adds a lot of value to this company."
Local ownership is also important to keeping customers. Marler says CMS's business usually comes from within a five-mile radius, and the new storage businesses are both about 20 miles away in either direction. The fact that Marler chose to expand in the face of increasing competition shows the confidence she has in the San Andreas community and in her facility. "At Calaveras Mini Storage, we put our customers first in mind, and we want them to have a great experience while storing with us," she says. "After meeting their storage needs, we enjoy sharing those little extras that help make their stay a more pleasurable one."