The city of Springfield has been awarded a $1.5 million grant from the federal government for the widening of LeCompte Road, the city-maintained rural road that serves Springfield Underground, a former limestone mine that offers 3.2 million square feet of leasable space for industrial use.
The grant comes from the U.S. Economic Development Administration and is intended for transportation infrastructure improvements to support supply chain resiliency in a region impacted by the declining use of coal, according to information provided by the city.
The two-lane LeCompte Road serves 600 tractor-trailers daily as cargo is moved into and out of the underground warehouse space, which houses 14 companies.
Through the grant, LeCompte Road will be widened from two to three lanes from its BNSF railroad crossing southward to its intersection with East Division Street. Work will include an asphalt overlay.
The grant will also pay for improvements to turn lanes on Division Street.
The impact portion of the grant application estimates the project will create nearly 100 jobs and generate $28 million in private investment from companies expanding or locating to the area.
Future phases of the project will focus on the northern terminus of LeCompte Road and will realign it to the west with Eastgate Avenue, the city announcement stated.
The EDA investment will be matched with $1.6 million in local funds. Work is expected to be complete within five years.
At its May 16 meeting, Springfield City Council voted to commit half of the funds from the eighth-cent transportation tax, and the Erlen Group will pay engineering costs and donate right of way toward the $3.1 million project.
Heavy traffic area
Christina Angle, chief financial officer of the Erlen Group, which owns and operates Springfield Underground, told council the company is serious about economic development.
“In the last two and a half years, we’ve grown from 42 people to 108, and we’ve added 650,000 square feet of industrial space in the last five years,” she said. “We’re very serious about the growth that this kind of opportunity can provide.”
She said improvements to LeCompte Road could open up vehicle capacity so that an additional 250 acres can be developed on the surface above Springfield Underground.
Kevin Ausburn, CEO of SMC Packaging Group, which manufactures corrugated packaging products, estimated to council that 15-20 tractor-trailer units use LeCompte Road to get from one SMC site to another on a daily basis.
LeCompte Road is unsafe, according to Ausburn, who cited its narrow, loose-gravel shoulder. He said one of his employees was rear-ended on Division Street while waiting to turn onto the road.
“This is an important, necessary development in Springfield,” he told council. “I commend the city for thinking about ways that we can impact our future economic success, and this is the type of project to do that.”
Springfield Underground offers lessees a constant temperature of 62 degrees and has 224 dock doors, with more than 3 miles each of lit roadway and rail siding.
Room to grow
The grass fields atop Springfield Underground are a stark contrast to the activity happening below ground.
This is where Angle sees the potential for up to 250 acres of surface development now that road conditions are slated for improvement.
It’s something the city sorely needs, Angle said.
“Springfield is in short supply of industrial locations,” she said.
Angle said it is difficult to predict how many jobs will result from infrastructure improvements and further development in the area, but she anticipates the total will be much higher.
Beneath the surface, Springfield Underground has an additional 650,000 square feet ready for development, and another 750,000 square feet available for future expansion.
The area is ripe for growth, according to Mayor Ken McClure.
“LeCompte Road serves as one of the main thoroughfares for the industrial, manufacturing and warehousing land uses east of U.S. 65,” he said.
LeCompte Road currently is not designed to accommodate the volume of truck traffic it experiences today, he said.
“One item holding the area back from being developed is the lack of appropriate infrastructure to support it,” he said. “In order to stimulate economic development in the area, improvements to LeCompte Road are necessary.”
What’s down there?
Although it welcomes the public with events ranging from Cub Scout Day Camps to high school cross-country invitationals, Springfield Underground is an industrial and warehouse space that is not open to casual visitors. In a recent tour Angle conducted, even she had to stop at a gate and be recognized before driving in.
Angle points out some of the large buildings constructed into the walls of the old quarry. It’s a Flintstones-meets-Jetsons effect, with a Bluebird Underground Data Center building housing computing and storage infrastructure that drives cutting-edge functions like analytics and the Internet of Things, according to its website.
But the caverns that once housed rocks also oddly still house rocks, namely the winter salt supply for the Missouri Department of Transportation.
Angle offered a close-up view of a building operated by Cold Zone, a subsidiary of the Erlen Group that offers food-grade public warehousing. This is building 9, the Vital Farms Egg Basket, which receives 35 trailer loads of eggs each day and stores them until they are needed for processing at Egg Central Station, where Vital Farms washes and packages its farm-raised eggs – roughly 6 million of them a day, Angle said.
Although the warehouse is underground and thus cooler than the surface, it is also refrigerated. There are advantages to placing a refrigerated warehouse underground, Angle said. In a controlled experiment, when the power was cut to the refrigerated spaces, the temperature fell by only a half degree per day.
Springfield Underground also famously holds large quantities of cheese; there is even a parody Facebook page called Springfield Underground Heistposting, filled with memes that fantasize about stealing the millions of pounds of cheese stored at the facility whose tenants include such large-scale cheesemongers as Kraft Foods, Dairy Farmers of America, Associated Wholesale Grocers and Hiland Dairy. Angle, though, takes food safety seriously, and she doesn’t find talk of cheese heists amusing. She said companies that age their cheese in the cool underground warehouses do so only until it’s time to move it to retailers through distribution channels.
“It’s not a concept of storing food as much as distributing food,” she said.
Angle said the complex is an important part of the logistics chain that is so often discussed these days.
“It’s critical when we talk about supply chain,” she said, adding that its location near the geographic center of the country makes Springfield Underground a vital link in the chain.
The EDA aims to assist communities impacted by the declining use of coal through programs that support economic diversification, job creation, capital investment, workforce development and reemployment opportunities, according to its website. Funding for the LeCompte Road grant comes from the American Rescue Plan and EDA’s $300 million Coal Communities Commitment. Coal communities are defined as those that can reasonably demonstrate how changes in the coal economy have resulted in job losses and layoffs in any coal-reliant commercial sector.
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