Each year, about a million people visit the Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun theme parks in Kansas City, Missouri, most of them unaware of an even stranger attraction lying about 100 feet below. Down there, in a place called SubTropolis, is a bustling enterprise zone where some 55 businesses have set up shop. You can find everything from 100-pound sacks of coffee beans to original reels of Gone With the Wind and the U.S. Postal Service’s stash of hundreds of millions of commemorative stamps.
With 5 million square feet of leased warehouse, light-industry, and office space, and a network of more than two miles of rail lines and six miles of roads, SubTropolis is the world’s largest underground business complex—and one of eight or so in the area. To people along this stretch of the Missouri River, however, subterranean development also represents an innovative local way to save energy and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
In the 1960s, the Hunt Midwest company, which owns SubTropolis, began renting out space created by limestone mining. When the energy crisis hit in the 1970s, people came to appreciate the advantages of locating businesses underground. That rationale is even more compelling today. More energy in the United States now goes to heating and cooling buildings than to powering cars and light trucks. Underground, the constant ambient temperature leads to greatly reduced heating and air-conditioning demands—about 85 percent lower than for a building on the surface, according to Donald Woodard, the former director of underground planning at nearby Park University (which may be the only school to have such a position).