- Associated Press - Monday, February 2, 2015

CRYSTAL CITY, Mo. (AP) - Tom Kerr and his wife, Kathy, purchased a dormant sand mine in 2007 with visions of conventions, concerts, sporting events and underground offices in the climate-controlled cave just south of St. Louis.

Crystal City Underground remains open for business but as a far more modest venture because some investors have been deterred by a long-simmering legal dispute with county officials who once embraced the plan. The officials say Kerr is thumbing his nose at development laws he agreed to abide by when the county rezoned the property in 2011.

The county wants the Kerrs’ company, Fiesta Corp., to submit a site development plan that includes expanded parking, public utilities and reinforcements to a rickety bridge that requires the cave owners to reassure wary visitors with a disclaimer on their website that it’s “certified by an engineer.”

A judge heard arguments late last month and is expected to rule soon.

Both Kerr and his attorney, Bob Kister, of Herculaneum, declined to discuss the legal battle with the county. But the 60-year-old transplanted Southern Californian, who favors Hawaiian shirts and uses a pair of electric vehicles to navigate the cave’s 200-acre, 6 million-square-foot expanse, railed against unspecified “idiot politicians” whose requirements he said are driving away investors.

“It’s hard to get people to invest $100 million in a project they think the county doesn’t want,” Kerr said.

The mine dates to the 19th century, when the region’s vast silica deposits attracted a glass manufacturer and nearby factory that would remain until the early 1990s and help define the community, including providing the source of its name.

For inspiration, Kerr looks across the state to Kansas City, where a converted cave called SubTropolis features more than 6 miles of lighted and paved roads and dozens of commercial businesses, from archive storage for court documents to a data center hailed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon as a high-tech innovator. Across the Mississippi River in Valmeyer, Illinois, a cave that was once a limestone quarry is now known as Rock City, with tenants that include the federal government’s National Archives and Records Administration.

For now, Crystal City Underground remains a recreational destination with attractions that include a glow-in-the-dark disc golf course, underground barge and kayak excursions and kid-friendly treasure hunts.

The cave has twice drawn the attention of police after the April 2014 death of a 22-year-old woman at an all-night electronic music concert and the subsequent arrest of 20 people on alcohol and drug charges after an October 2014 event dubbed a “rave in the cave.”

Kerr said he was under contract with a music promoter to hold those two events and one other at the cave but no longer plans to host electronic dance concerts, instead eyeing more traditional rock and country shows.

“It’s just not worth it,” he said, referring to the scrutiny by law enforcement and negative publicity.

In court, Kerr and his lawyer now argue that the venue should be overseen by the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, which monitors mines and caves. But Dennis Kehm Jr., assistant director of county services and code enforcement for Jefferson County, noted the cave owner had previously agreed to the county’s requirements when he successfully pursued a pair of rezonings several years ago.

“We would love for this development to go forward,” Kehm said. “We were in favor of it when he proposed it. That’s why we approved it. We just need him to follow all the legal steps that every other commercial development has to follow.”


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