Park University broke into the limestone business in 1981 and has been digging it ever since.
The institution then known as Park College drew national press with its unorthodox decision to expand downward. By hiring a local mining company to blast deep into the hill on which the college sat for a century, Park gained space and turned profits selling the rock.
“Every school is in financial need,” an administrator told The Star when the first caverns opened in the mid-’80s. “And here we have this natural endowment under our feet.”
The university also makes money renting out business space to the Parkville Commercial Underground, where companies now lease more than 250,000 square feet. Rent prices start at about $3 per square foot for warehouse space, said property manager Mark Martin.
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“We buy a whole lot of white paint to keep the place as bright as possible,” Martin said. “Sherwin Williams loves us.”
The world below campus stretches out in two parts: Parkville Commercial Underground and the section occupied by the university. Known as “academic underground,” much of the college space had been taken up by McAfee Library until it moved last year into the renovated Norrington Center above ground.
The academic underground is air conditioned and requires no heat. Faculty keep offices down there. Students shop for books and backpacks down there.
A display behind glass salutes Park alumni Albert and Sylvia Caldwell, who survived the Titanic.
Park’s nursing program is entirely underground. One large classroom room, the simulation lab, includes gurneys carrying simulated patients beside beeping electronics.
A mock, high-tech hospital facility. In a cave.
East of campus, the Martin Marietta mining company still harvests limestone owned by the college, providing Park about $200,000 in annual income it would not otherwise have.
But Park has lost interest in mining more to expand itself, said chief financial officer Brian Bode.
“It’s not really our business. It’s not we do,” he said. “We’re a university. That’s what we do great.”