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Can I Sell You an Underground Bunker?

Hundreds of entrepreneurs are hatching businesses to serve
"preppers," from bunker-building to survival-skills training to
dating services

By Victoria Black
     Aug. 7 (Bloomberg BusinessWeek) -- When CBS broadcast
fictional reports that an invading army of Martians was
slaughtering thousands in the streets of New York, listeners
across the country panicked. “New York destroyed; it’s the end of
the world,” the New York Times quoted (paywall) an Indianapolis
woman screaming as she ran into a church. “You might as well go
home to die. I just heard it on the radio.” Orson Welles incited
this chaos 74 years ago, when he performed an adaptation of H.G.
Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds over the air.
     These days, a radio show about the end of the world airs on
weekend nights from a bunker in Dallas. But instead of pretending
aliens are invading, its host, Scott Bales, 42, tells his
audience what to do if this or other catastrophes—such as a large
meteor hitting the planet, nuclear war, or a dollar
crash—actually happen.
     Bales is a prepper, shorthand for someone who devotes time
and money preparing to survive cataclysmic events. He’s also an
entrepreneur capitalizing on preppers’ fears. His 64-person
company, Deep Earth Bunker, builds fortified shelters. Fees for a
simple bunker start around $50,000 and climb above $10 million
and Bales says he’s sold more than 1,400 to “hard-core preppers
who are either rich or [they're] poor and save their money.” Two
reality shows that made debuts earlier this year have helped his
business: National Geographic Channel’s Doomsday Preppers and
Discovery Channel’s Doomsday Bunkers , which featured Bales on
each of its episodes this spring, sparking nearly 16,000
     Extreme weather, economic uncertainty, and national security
concerns are prompting a surge of entrepreneurs to market to
Americans preparing for the worst. Today “there are roughly 3
million preppers in the U.S.,” says Mathew Gross, author of The
Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us About
America (Prometheus Books, March 2012). Over the last five years,
the number of survival-oriented businesses—particularly those
dealing with food storage and wilderness survival gear—“have
increased by hundreds of percentage points,” to hundreds of
enterprises, says Doug Ritter, chairman of the Equipped to
Survive Foundation, a Gilbert (Ariz.)-based nonprofit. “And
there’s every indication that they will keep growing.”
     Shea Degan, 44, is a former sheriff who recently bought one
of Bales’s bunkers and is using it to train clients at his Omaha
survival-skills center, 88 Tactical. Degan charges $450 for a
two-day self-defense class featuring combat lessons, gun
handling, and other basics. For $6,000, clients get a five-day
session in which Degan and his 22-person team create realistic
worst-case scenarios for participants. He’s planning to start
franchising the centers next month, and he expects to triple
clients to 4,500 by year-end. “We get people from all walks of
life,” Degan says. “For a 24-hour class we had a radio DJ, a
neurosurgeon, a physician, and a group of businessmen.”
     Not all businesses that serve preppers planned on marketing
to preppers. Don Kubley, 57, who owns InterShelter, a Juneau
(Alaska)-based manufacturer of portable shelters, intended to
sell to government buyers seeking housing for the homeless; he
says preppers have been spending thousands for his domes, the
smallest of which (at 14 feet in diameter) costs $6,500. They can
be sprayed with his bulletproof and bombproof coating,
Dragonshield. “It takes three things to survive: food, water, and
shelter,” Kubley says. “And we are one-third of that formula.”
     Is that really all it takes? Andrea Burke, an art teacher
and holistic health coach in western Montana who runs dating site
Survivalist Singles, thinks companionship is a crucial element.
The free site isn’t making money yet but Burke, 45, plans to
start charging its 3,800 users a $5 monthly membership fee this
fall. The site uses the tagline “Don’t face the future alone,”
but Burke may change it to “Find love for less than the cost of a
box of bullets” once the fee is in place. “Less than the cost of
a latte doesn’t really work with this crowd,” Burke explains.
“Maybe less than an MRE.”
     Bales isn’t limiting his marketing to his radio show or his
role on Doomsday Bunkers . This spring he launched his own
production company, Pyramid Films, to record bunker installations
and use the footage to create his own show if he doesn’t get
featured on a further reality series. (He’s in talks with some,
he says.) Bales could also apply to National Geographic’s
Doomsday Preppers , which has been tweeting casting calls for its
second season.

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