Plans for the largest-ever doomsday bunker were just quietly scrapped, and the company behind it has seen a major shift in its clientele after fears of a Mayan-predicted apocalypse blew over in 2012.
Robert Vicino, the founder and CEO of privately held Vivos, told CNBC.com that his company has decided to pull the plug on its plans for a 5,000-person bunker in Atchison, Kansas. The project, which received significant fanfare upon its announcement in 2013, would have been the largest publicly disclosed doomsday shelter at more than 2 million square feet. It also boasted an indoor golf course and skateboard park, among other luxury amenities.
Instead, "with a great deal of energy and expense down the drain," Vicino said he is walking away from the so-called Ark. The company, he explained, incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in engineering and premarketing costs for the Kansas location, but it still has existent shelters, and will continue to build more.
The project, Vicino said, was scrapped for structural reasons: It was to be built in a former limestone mine that had been converted to a government storage facility before Vivos purchased much of it in 2013, but Vicino said he had safety concerns.
"I didn't feel safe in there, and I wouldn't put people in there in a disaster situation," he said, adding that the cost to mitigate the structural concerns would have far exceeded the originally predicted $35 million to retrofit the facility.
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This assertion was strenously denied, however, by Jacque Pregont, president of Atchison's Chamber of Commerce. She laughed aloud when told of Vicino's claim about safety, and said that there are several businesses operating in other parts of the mines, all of which are "very safe." Instead, she said, the Vivos project had difficulty attracting interest.
"I think it just didn't work, [Vicino] didn't get the reaction that he thought he would get, he didn't get the interest that he thought he would get," she said. "And that's OK, everybody has ideas that sometimes don't work out."
Vicino stressed that the project was not scrapped because of a lack of buyers, telling CNBC.com he had "hundreds" of reservations for the Atchison facility, but he did admit that bunker interest comes in waves.
"It's a funny business: When people want us the most is when we can no longer deliver," he said. "A lot of people sit on the fence. ... When they see something unfolding, that's when they're going to become motivated, but unfortunately for them, it'll be too late."
Despite these prognostications, interest in bunkers within the preparedness community—or "preppers" as they are often known— is slight at best, said Todd Sepulveda, owner and editor of Prepperwebsite.com. His website, which aggregates and curates discussions and articles related to disaster preparedness, has only ever carried a few pieces on bunkers, he said.
Bunkers are more "sensational," he said, and they come with a hefty price tag, and may not be the most important part of preparedness.
"[Bunkers are] going to be more attractive to the people who can fork out money for that," Sepulveda said. "There are so many other things that are more important first before they go to a bunker: They would want to make sure they have food and water."
Vicino said the steep cost of securing a bunker spot—up to $50,000 for one adult at Vivos' Indiana location—is not a problem for his company, as it draws in a "professional" crowd. The lack of an impending Mayan doomsday also helps thin the ranks of potential buyers.
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"The prior-to-2012 loons have come and gone, and now we have real serious professionals who are preparing for a hit: superior court judges, top military officials, medical professionals ... people who are very sophisticated," he said.
But Vicino did admit that some of the wealthiest potential buyers have indicated they will wait until just before a catastrophe to buy a bunker spot. They may find themselves out of luck, however, as Vivos "certainly won't accept plastic or cash: You better bring gold or silver, and a lot of skills."
"When the s--- hits the fan, who you gonna' call?" Vicino said.
—By CNBC's Everett Rosenfeld