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Iron Mountain digs deep in Butler County mine to bring in clients

| Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014, 1:02 p.m.
Inside of an area that is part of phase 2 development inside of Iron Mountain in in Marion, Butler County, on Thursday,  Nov. 6, 2014.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Inside of an area that is part of phase 2 development inside of Iron Mountain in in Marion, Butler County, on Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014.
Inside of an area that is part of phase 1 development inside of Iron Mountain in in Marion, Butler County, on Thursday,  Nov. 6, 2014.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Inside of an area that is part of phase 1 development inside of Iron Mountain in in Marion, Butler County, on Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014.
Inside of an area that is part of phase 1 development inside of Iron Mountain's  in in Marion, Butler County, on Thursday,  Nov. 6, 2014.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Inside of an area that is part of phase 1 development inside of Iron Mountain's in in Marion, Butler County, on Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014.
Inside of a mechanical/electronics/cooling center for data storage center that is part of Iron Mountain's phase 1 development.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Inside of a mechanical/electronics/cooling center for data storage center that is part of Iron Mountain's phase 1 development.
An area under construction as part of phase 1 development of a data storage center inside of Iron Mountain in in Marion, Butler County, on Thursday,  Nov. 6, 2014.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
An area under construction as part of phase 1 development of a data storage center inside of Iron Mountain in in Marion, Butler County, on Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014.
The entrance to Iron Mountain in Marion, Butler County, on Thursday,  Nov. 6, 2014.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
The entrance to Iron Mountain in Marion, Butler County, on Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014.
Inside of an area that is part of phase 2 development inside of Iron Mountain.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Inside of an area that is part of phase 2 development inside of Iron Mountain.
Inside of a co-location data storage center that is part of phase 1 development inside of Iron Mountain.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Inside of a co-location data storage center that is part of phase 1 development inside of Iron Mountain.

As the amount of paper brought for storage at Iron Mountain's sprawling underground facility in Marion, Butler County, began to drop a few years ago, the company knew it had to adapt to survive in the age of bits and bytes.

“We were looking for ways to reinvent ourselves and present alternative solutions to our customers, and Mother Nature provided us with the perfect platform to launch the new business line,” said Nicholas Salimbene, director of business development.

The Boston-based company has kicked off an expansion, potentially costing up to $200 million, that by 2019 could convert about 10 unused acres of the former limestone mine into data centers, which house networks of computer servers that process and store large amounts of information.

The state awarded Iron Mountain a $2 million grant last month to help pay for improvements, including the installation of a geothermic cooling system using water from an underground lake.

With the use of paper records dying a slow death, data centers are a growth industry, said Shawn McGorry, president of Expedient Data Centers in Green Tree. McGorry said his company has had double-digit growth in each of the last five years.

“Customers who run their businesses effectively online through computing systems can never afford to be down,” McGorry said. “Five years ago, when your email went down, it was considered a fairly minor annoyance. Today, you're dead in the water.”

Butler County lobbied for the state grant, said Commissioner Bill McCarrier. With about 3,000 people having credentials to work at Iron Mountain for companies ranging from Corbis Film Preservation to the federal Office of Personnel Management, “they are the largest employer in northern Butler County.”

On any given day, about 2,500 people work inside the mine. Iron Mountain has about 2,300 customers who store records and information in the original paper documents and microfilm, and three customers in data centers, including Marriott, before the expansion project.

“I'm a little surprised that people are still doing anything on paper,” said Mark Miller, a senior research analyst for Noble Financial Capital Markets, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based financial firm.

Iron Mountain is hoping the expansion will bring in from 200 to 300 new clients.

The company would turn pockets of open space between limestone columns left during mining operations into secure and climate-controlled offices, and it would upgrade its fiber communications network. How much space it converts depends on how many new clients it receives.

With heavy security in place and a location 220 feet underground, the data centers would be secure and safe from emergencies ranging from attacks to natural disasters, said Salimbene and Kidd.

A layer of shale above the mine also makes it perfectly dry, McCarrier said.

“So the water doesn't seep through the limestone,” he said.

The Coast Guard established a data center at Iron Mountain recently, signing a one-year, $314,000 contract for implementing a data system as part of the agency's integrated health information system, which is scheduled to begin in June, 2015, according to public records.

One reason it chose Iron Mountain is that the federal Office of Personnel Management also has space there, Coast Guard contracting officer Wendy Stevenson said.

The challenge facing Iron Mountain is much like the challenge facing the Postal Service, said Marcel Minutolo, department head and associate professor of management at Robert Morris University.

“It's dying a slow death because the Postal Service saw itself as a letter carrier, and as soon as emails were being used, the demand for letter carriers went down,” he said.

“As paper management dwindles, the need for (Iron Mountain's) services is going to as well,” he added. “It's a good time to do this.”

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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