By Deb Hipp
Reprinted with permission from "The Storage Facilitator" blog.
Not many people get into the self-storage business as the result of a joke. For Coby Cullins, though, that’s exactly what happened. Cullins, a small-business owner, enjoys spelunking, the sport of exploring caves. So when two of his employees came across a former limestone mine and military storage complex being auctioned online in April 2013, they sent him the link, hoping to get a laugh. Instead, the idea intrigued Cullins, who’d read about limestone caves being converted into office space in other cities.
Since World War II, the federal government had owned the property in Atchison, Kan., a town on the Kansas-Missouri border that’s best known as the birthplace of aviator Amelia Earhart. The 2.7-million-square-foot complex spans 60 acres below ground and 125 acres above. Sections of the cave run as deep as 150 feet.
‘What Have I Gotten Myself Into?’
Exploring caves was one thing. Carving out a business from an old limestone mine would be another. Cullins already owned two businesses in Springfield, Mo.: National Safety Compliance, which helps employers meet OSHA requirements, and NSC Printing & Ministries, a provider of printing services to churches and missionaries.
It wasn’t as if Cullins would need to start from scratch. The U.S. Army had already converted the cavern into storage areas by installing concrete block walls and floors, electrical lighting, sump pumps, air-handling equipment, and an extensive (100,000 cubic feet per minute) dehumidification system. Over the years, the facility was used to store thousands of parachutes, medical supplies and US. Department of Defense documents.
Cullins saw the listing on a Friday, bid $510,000 that Saturday, and won the property on Sunday from GSA Auctions, a government website. Cullins, who missed the chance for two previous showings of the property, got to see his new cave one day after buying it. “What have I gotten myself into?” he wondered as he explored the mammoth cavern, unable to navigate the maze-like pathways without a map.
Even though he had no experience in the self-storage business, Cullins knew a climate-controlled cave safe from floods, tornadoes and other natural disasters would be perfect for all sorts of storage needs. But traditional self-storage is probably not going to be the main source of income, he realizes, seeing potential for the storage of business inventory, business records and heavy machinery.
Cullins promotes his business online and in Yellow Pages directories but also markets it during public tours of the facility five days per week. “Those tours have brought in the majority of our storage clients,” he says.
Meanwhile, in the newly branded Citadel Caverns and Mo-Kan Underground Business Center, Cullins also has opened Extreme Underground, a cave complex for laser tag, archery, miniature golf and rock climbing. The attraction draws 200 to 300 people every weekend.
Furthermore, he recently hired an architecture firm to conduct a feasibility study, which came back favorably, to establish an underground center for storage of digital data. The architecture firm is searching for potential tenants.