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Monday, March 29, 2004 - Page updated at 09:18 A.M.
Buyer or investors sought for abandoned missile site
By Ray Rivera
But what rests underneath, he says, is a link to our nation's history. Five stories below the surface sit more than a dozen shock-proof structures connected by thousands of feet of tunnels. Three hulking silos descend 155 feet. Forty years ago, each housed a nuclear-tipped Titan I rocket aimed at the Soviet Union.
The site is among dozens of early nuclear-missile complexes that dotted the landscape at the height of the Cold War. The sites were later abandoned and sold for scrap, and they now occupy one of the most bizarre segments of the real-estate market.
Hotchkiss hopes to lure investors to transform this subterranean concrete-and-steel fortress into an "ultra secure, ultra private" corporate retreat.
Other possibilities: a world-class winery or an adventure camp for kids, complete with a rock-climbing wall in one silo, a scuba-training pool in another, and a Cold War museum in between.
He also could convert it to industrial use, he says, or sell it outright. His asking price: $3.4 million. Hotchkiss purchased the property for $275,000 in 1998, according to records kept by the previous owner.
He's pitching his vision for the missile complex in that inevitable meeting place of the quixotic and the commercial: eBay.
He says he has received thousands of nibbles since posting the ad late last year. So far, no takers, but plenty of ideas. Some have talked about using the underground base to grow mushrooms, to store records or to warehouse hazardous waste.
Hotchkiss, 46, says he'd rather have it as a place the public can treasure. "It's irreplaceable," he says.
His asking price, though, is an eye-popping sum in the obscure marketplace of abandoned missile silos.
"I think it's high for the market value," says Edward Peden, owner of 20th Century Castles, a Kansas firm that specializes in underground real estate.
Peden lists 10 sites for sale on www.missilebases.com, his Web site. Prices range from $230,000 for an 11-acre, Atlas-F site in Shep, Texas, to $1.4 million for a 200-acre Titan I site near Denver.
Sites gain 'strange reputation'
Three of those sites including the one owned by Hotchkiss ring former Larson Air Force Base outside Moses Lake. The other two are in Warden and Royal City in Grant County. They operated for less than three years. All sit largely unused and in disrepair.
Around the country, dozens of former missile complexes are in private hands. Where once sat Air Force crewmen, poised to launch a nuclear strike, are living rooms, farm sheds, and, occasionally, illegal drug labs.
At least twice in Washington, they have been the scenes of macabre crimes.
In the 1970s, workers pumping water out of the Warden complex discovered a skeleton chained to a heavy tire. Gig Harbor resident Gwendolyn Ash, whose husband was part-owner of both the Warden and Batum complexes, remembers the crime. The remains were identified as a woman from Othello, Adams County, who had been missing for four years. The woman's husband was later convicted of her murder.
Last year, a long-haul truck driver was convicted of first-degree murder after killing and dismembering a state auditor at an Atlas missile site where the trucker lived near Davenport, Lincoln County.
"The sites have acquired a kind of strange reputation, a negative reputation in the minds of some," says Peden of 20th Century Castles. "Our hope is that these are going to fall in some good, capable hands by people who are going to maintain them into the future as the historic sites that they are."
Peden and his wife have lived in a converted Atlas-E site in Dover, Kan., for 10 years. He estimates that about 70 percent of the nearly 120 first-generation missile complexes in the country are owned privately. The rest belong to government agencies. Some haven't been touched in decades, some are flooded, and some have been refurbished into valuable properties.
"The thing about them is they are unique structures," Peden says. "They cost millions to build, and there will never be anything like them again. That's why we call our company 20th Century Castles, because we think these structures are the 20th-century counterpart of those old European structures that had such mystique."
Sites were secure, not secret
Built to withstand a Soviet nuclear blast, the mammoth structures encompassed about 45,000 square feet of floor space. Each had its own water-treatment facility, a power station housed in a giant dome, and enough food and fresh air to supply 150 men for a month.
At the Batum site, the walls are up to 14 feet thick. Horizontal doors that open to the sky weigh 125 tons.
The 98-foot rockets, some of the first intercontinental ballistic missiles, had a range of 5,500 miles and could reach Moscow in 30 minutes. During the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the Titans were poised to launch as a last resort.
But the sites had a short operational life. By 1965, they were phased out in favor of the Titan II, which was quicker to launch and better able to survive a nuclear first strike.
The retired Titan sites were sold for scrap. Salvagers removed tons of metal floor panels, miles of cable and anything else of value. The four 1-megawatt diesel engines that powered the complexes were pulled from the roof and shipped to Vietnam.
Though the sites operated under tight security, their existence was well known in the surrounding communities.
"There was nothing secret about it," says former Larson commander Clyde Owen, 85, of Moses Lake. "Everyone knew there were missile sites around there."
Former missile-squadron commander Robert Mullin recalled the duty as long periods of tedium spiked by tense moments.
"It was sort of tough duty," says Mullin, 83, of Spokane. "There were a lot of people like myself who came from the flying business, and when you went to missile duty, you were at the site 24 hours and you were rather secluded. You didn't have that adventure and excitement of flying."
He and Owen say they can't imagine why anyone would want to buy or live in one.
A daunting project
Hotchkiss, a real-estate developer, says his interest was sparked several years ago after a television-news report about Peden and his much-smaller Atlas silo. Hotchkiss tracked him down, toured the silo, then began visiting Titan I complexes around the U.S.
"I think this is the most pristine of them all," he says of the one he owns.
"Pristine" is decidedly relative. The site was a popular haunt for area teenagers in the 1980s. Spray-painted oaths and profanities now cover the walls. Beer cans litter the floor. Steel brackets protrude from walls, and precarious holes lurk like traps.
Several years ago, one boy who had lowered himself through an air vent fell to his death trying to climb back out.
And nearly all of the former missile sites around the country, including Hotchkiss', have environmental issues, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. Among the biggest culprits is trichloroethylene, a solvent used to clean rocket motors.
The Army Corps of Engineers has embarked on a program to clean the sites.
Most of the installations converted into homes are the smaller, more manageable Atlas complexes. To date, none of the immense Titan I bases has been refurbished, Peden says.
"These are very, very big projects."
Hotchkiss knows the task is Herculean. But like other great monuments to history, he says, "Where else will you ever see another place like this?"
Seattle Times staff researchers Miyoko Wolf and Gene Balk contributed to this report. Ray Rivera: 206-464-2926 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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