The salt of the earth


His Power-E safety helmet dusted with powdered salt, Lee Spence is all smiles talking about secure storage and the growth of a tourist attraction--both 650 feet under the surface of Hutchinson, Kan.ONLINE: Hornets go down under Hutch

Six hundred fifty feet underground Hutchinson, Kan.

Far beyond the point where sunlight has any chance of penetrating, it’s a regular day on the job for Lee Spence and dozens of people who work here at Underground Vaults and Storage.

A 90-second elevator ride straight down, electric lights turn total darkness into an environment that’s typical of many other workplaces—except for the fact that this “office” is the equivalent of 35 football fields encased in salt-walled vaults mined over the past 90-plus years.

“I’ve been here since 1979,” said Spence (BSB 1978), the president of UV&S. “This was my first job out of Emporia State University. The uniqueness of this job and the company itself provided a variety of things for me to do.”

Unique, indeed. Spence runs a company that safely tucks underground millions of items from 23 international countries and all 50 states. Oil and gas drilling reports, healthcare records—and yes, even the master prints of “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz”—are all down here.

UV&S has been the choice of Fortune 500 companies and small businesses seeking a climate-controlled, secure location to house important records.

“The idea came from one of our founders who was in World War II and discovered some of the artifacts that Hitler had stored in the German salt mines,” Spence relates. Carey Salt Company, now known as Hutchinson Salt Company, has operated the underground storage complex since its creation in 1959. 

The movie film industry is a big customer. “We call this ‘Hollywood Boulevard,’” Spence says, swinging an arm to encompass 15 storage bays filled with film from Warner Brothers, Sony Pictures, 20th Century-Fox and Disney.

Lee Spence, Underground Vaults & Storage presidentWhile general public access to the UV&S vaults is restricted, visitors can get a sense of the vast expanse of space and variety of materials by touring the Underground Salt Museum, a second phase of the company’s business.

Last year, about 60,000 people donned the hard hats and OSHA-required emergency breathing apparatus to tour the museum, now listed as one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas. Visitors note the year-round 68-degree temperature and marvel at the claustrophobia-cancelling effects of what essentially is wide open space.

“This is the fun part of the business,” Spence says. “We’ve had people from Hollywood here doing shows—‘Modern Marvels’ from the History Channel, and ‘Dirty Jobs’ from Discovery, for instance. There’s just a variety of things you get involved in.”

Inside one of Underground Vaults & Storage's vaultsSpence continues to depend on the communication skills he learned as an ESU business school student in his roles as UV&S’s president and chief spokesman. “I had no idea this was where I would end up,” he maintains.

“I was in the right place at the right time.”