In 1976, Wayne and Sammy Jo Reeder borrowed $2 million for a 236-acre swath of mined-out caverns, one that had been developed enough to house a freezer.
“We knew it was a steal,” said Wayne Reeder, now estimating the value to be $20 million.
The husband and wife converted their East 23rd Street and I-435 space near Independence into a vast, all-around storage operation that they called Interstate Underground Warehouse & Distribution.
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Wayne and Sammy Jo have since divorced, but they remain on good terms. And for great reason: Their success in the cave business gave rise to the Reeder Family Trust and corporate subsidiaries of Interstate Underground that are reshaping the above-ground scene all around the metro.
“I got fairly successful fairly fast,” said Wayne Reeder, 85. “I’ve never worked for anybody ever.”
He lives in the penthouse suite at North Kansas City’s The View, luxury condominiums of the Reeder family’s own creation.
Offshoots of Interstate Underground also renovated the historic Scarritt Building in downtown Kansas City, bought the old Trinity Lutheran Hospital building with plans to create 350 residential units, converted the Royal Hotel in Excelsior Springs into a senior living complex, bought two blocks in the West Bottoms to build new apartments and struck major real estate deals in Harrisonville.
As for that cave that got things rolling (Reeder calls it a cave; others will correct him and say it’s an old limestone mine), the contents run the gamut.
Bird’s Botanical keeps a gorgeous shop of award-winning orchid varieties that can be grown year-round.
The U.S. Defense Department leases space to stockpile rations. A Lawrence outfit, Wakarusa Valley Farm, raises mushrooms in climate-controlled vaults.
About a thousand caskets at a time stay at Interstate Underground. Made by a company serving military veterans, the coffins stand upright in a room adjusted to a temperature and humidity friendly to their wood finishes.
Wayne Reeder still shows up for work in an office where photos of his family’s above-ground achievements line the wall.
On paper, ex-wife Sammy Jo is the owner of Interstate Underground, as negotiated in their divorce.
“I’m just a lowly consultant,” says Wayne Reeder, whose lucky streak in real estate began shortly after graduating from UCLA in 1954 — in Hawaii and California, he said, long before buying a cave.
He doesn’t step as briskly as he used to. So the daily task of cave upkeep — which is not easy — goes to sales manager Brad Velfer, 55, who has worked for Reeder for a decade, and maintenance manager Jerry Johnson, an employee since the Reeders acquired the property.
Velfer turns off lights to save on electric bills. He chews out tenants who leave out garbage for days. Velfer knows the place as well as his own home.
“I’ve got all the keys,” he said.