KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI—I’ve been to a lot of unusual places in my long career as a journalist, but SubTropolis in Kansas City takes the cake. It’s the world’s largest underground storage facility, 6 million square feet 80 to 150 down in a former limestone mine. The limestone is 270 million years old, but the use of these caves for climate-controlled businesses only dates to 1964.
LightEdge maintains a naturally cooled data center at SubTropolis. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
SubTropolis, owned by the wealthy Hunt family, is like an underground city, with the major benefit in hot-summer, cold-winter Kansas City of being a steady 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. No wonder the place gets a 100 percent Energy Star rating — no heating or air conditioning necessary! The U.S. Post Office stores $6 billion in stamps down here, and LightEdge Solutions maintains a naturally cooled $58 million data center.
I’m down in SubTropolis for Automotive Alley, the newest addition. In 2011, Ford announced a $1.1 billion expansion of its Claycomo assembly plant, which makes the F-150 truck (America’s bestselling vehicle) and the Transit van. SubTropolis borders Ford’s property, so what better location for Ford suppliers?
On the surface here, Ford maintains a 29-acre logistics facility where it stages 1,800 Transits, 80 percent of which get shipped by rail from here. But a lot of them go underground, where three companies, Adrian Steel, Knapheide and Ground Effects, have only recently begun “upfitting” them for customers like Comcast, Duke Energy, Western Pest Control, Geek Squad and Halliburton.
First stop: Canada-based Ground Effects, where plant manager April Adams shows me rows of F-150s that are having bed liners sprayed in (a $475 factory option). Across the way, Transits are getting cargo spray floors, Kicker subwoofers and remote starts. The whole spraying thing gets me concerned about ventilation down here, but President and CEO Ora Reynolds and VP Mike Bell assure me that the place is naturally air conditioned through 17 openings. “We have the EPA down here,” Bell says. “Do you think they’d allow us to have bad air quality?”
Reynolds explained that the constant temperature is great for the suppliers, because they don’t have to wait for the trucks to cool down or warm up before getting to work on them.
The auto industry is booming, maybe headed to a 17-million car-and-truck year, and that means multiple shifts for the auto suppliers in Automotive Alley. Ground Effects, which is processing 800 to 900 trucks a week, is hiring. “We’re planning to add some spray robots,” says Adams, who started as an office administrator here.
At Knapheide, workers in dreadlocks were taking a lunch break amid rows of half-finished trucks. If going to work 100 feet underground and upfitting vans between giant limestone pillars struck them as odd, they sure didn’t show it. This company has had a symbiotic relationship with Ford forever, and once made wood flooring for Model Ts.
Emerging from SubTropolis (and into a local town’s notorious speed trap, with a waiting police car and 10 mph speed limits) was somewhat disorienting. It was hot and sunny, a perfect Kansas City day. There was one more supplier to visit, this one on the surface right outside SubTropolis.
“We’ve really been getting into volume in the last couple of months,’ Mark Jackson of Adrian Steel told me. The “Adrian” is for Adrian, Michigan, where the parts the company installs are made. But it makes sense to do that work here, right in the shadow of Ford’s operations. A whole line is just for Best Buy’s Geek Squad trucks, which get racks and other tools to install big-screen TVs and in-home networks. Twenty-five Geek Squad Transits come through here a day, spending 20 minutes at each station. Adrian does conversions to natural gas and propane as well.
SubTropolis is huge already, but Reynolds and Bell showed me a plan with up to 8 million more square feet they could add. I had an idea: classic car storage! People would pay $200 a month easy to store their antiques in a climate-controlled garage. There you go, another million square feet put to use.
Here's some Automotive Alley video: