Back in the 1960s, the Midland-Odessa area of West Texas was grappling with a slump in its oil-dependent economy. For more than a dozen years, locals had lived lavishly thanks to the region’s gushing oil wells.

During this lull in the oil action, local oilman Russ Williams and his stepson, Bob Munn, built what would spawn another economic gusher, of sorts. In 1964, Williams and Munn put up a building in Odessa made of cinderblocks and corrugated steel where customers could house their belongings. Each unit was outfitted with a wooden overhead door.

The pair named this business A-1 U-Store-It U-Lock-It U-Carry-the-Key so that it would be listed first in the phone book, a common marketing tactic in those days.

It was falling apart when we got it. It looked like a junkyard.
— Facility co-owner Ron Chestnut

Russ Williams and Bob Munn didn’t know it at the time, but they gave birth to what’s regarded as the country’s first modern self-storage facility — and gave birth to what’s now a $25 billion industry in the U.S.

Self-storage has spread across the country and around the world in the 50 years since A-1 U-Store-It U-Lock-It U-Carry-the-Key opened. In the U.S. alone, more than 50,000 storage facilities safeguard everything from everyday items like sofas and mattresses to quirkier stuff like classic cars and one-of-a-kind oil paintings.

Amid the growth of the self-storage industry, the industry’s birthplace in Odessa fell into disrepair and was abandoned by its eventual owner. Unaware of its historical significance, two local businessmen bought the rundown facility in 2013 and have restored it.

Outa Space Storage
Ted Tuminoski and Ron Chestnut converted the old A-1 U-Store-It facility into Outa Space Storage.

A challenging project

Years of neglect took their toll on the storage facility at 503 S. Industrial Ave., tucked away in a quiet industrial area of Odessa. The units were looted; graffiti covered the walls.

Where others saw an outdated, derelict building that should have been torn down, Ted Tuminoski, owner of Diversified Warehouse, and business partner Ron Chestnut saw potential.

One developer had sought to demolish the facility and put up an industrial building on the site. Instead, the two business partners purchased the building last year and set about renovating and reopening the facility.

“We have taken on some pretty interesting projects before. We knew it would be a challenge, but we knew we could get it done,” Tuminoski said.

He and Chestnut, who sells fitness equipment for a living, have teamed up on other real estate deals. Chestnut said rehabilitating the rundown storage facility was a bit more challenging than they’d expected.

“It was falling apart when we got it. It looked like a junkyard,” Chestnut said.

Outa Space Storage
After months of renovation, Outa Space Storage opened in July.

Cleaning up

Chestnut said the walls were in good shape, but the roof need to be replaced. “We didn’t realize when we got it that the roof was in as bad of shape as it was,” Tuminoski said.

The renovations also included installing new doors and security systems, painting the exterior and paving the lot. The overhaul cost about $150,000, he said, much of it going toward the new roof.

The duo bought the property in May 2013 and opened the storage business this July, under the name Outa Space Storage. The 16,000-square-foot facility contains about 60 units; the interior metal walls can be reconfigured to adjust the number and sizes of the units.

It took Tuminoski and Chestnut a bit longer than planned to finish the work because the local oil boom has sapped the labor pool. “It’s a crazy market,” Chestnut said. “Finding contractors to do the work is really difficult.”

Another stumbling block was clearing the units of cast-offs like old clothing, housewares, porn magazines and newspapers.

McKinney Park
A water feature at a park in Odessa, TX, pays homage to the city’s long relationship with the oil industry.

“Half of the units were full, and it cost us a small fortune to haul the garbage out of it,” Chestnut said. “We did find some old comic books, but I’m not sure yet if they are worth anything.”

On a recent summer day, one item still lingered, waiting to be hauled away — an old ice hockey machine, its playing surface covered with a thick layer of dirt.

“Believe me, it was nothing like ‘Storage Wars,’” Tuminoski said of the remnants.

Hanging on

Tuminoski said that to his surprise, a couple of previous tenants still were sending rent checks — about $50 a month for 10×20 storage units. Tuminoski finally tracked down those tenants, but he said they weren’t interested in recovering their belongings, which had been there for years and years.

Demand for the restored units is expected to come primarily from industrial customers, Chestnut said. “It’s not bad for someone who has some machinery they might have inside that they do not want in the weather all the time,” he said.

The renovated units range in size from 5×10 to 20×50. Because the facility is off the beaten path, surrounded by open prairie and industrial buildings, the owners decided to offer lower rates than other self-storage facilities in Odessa. A 10×20 rents for $120 a month, compared with up to $170 at other facilities in town.

“They are putting up new facilities everywhere. Some real nice ones are going in,” Chestnut said.

Midland TX storage
Jim Munn is co-owner of this storage facility in Midland, TX.

First storage facility

Russ Williams got the idea to build the facility when he saw that a local tool rental company was renting out a couple of storage sheds on its property, according to Jim Munn, son of Bob Munn.

“My grandfather [Williams] was my dad’s mentor and had been in my dad’s life since he was a young boy,” Jim Munn said.

As self-storage pioneers, the pair would go on to build six more A-1 U-Store-It facilities throughout Texas. The men built facilities around Odessa, as well as in Austin, El Paso and Houston. Williams died in 1971 at age 70. Most of the facilities he and Munn developed were sold around that time, including the Industrial Avenue location. Munn died in 2009 at age 86.

Jim Munn owns the family’s only remaining self-storage facility, in nearby Midland, with his mother and sister.

As a kid, I was there every day working. I was painting doors, cleaning tools and pulling weeds.
— Jim Munn, grandson of A-1 U-Store-It co-founder Bob Munn

Self-storage was a side venture for Williams and Munn, who already had worked together in their own oilfield services business. That company, named Yellow Jacket, tested equipment used on drilling rigs. In fact, they stored some of their business equipment in units at the Industrial Avenue facility.

From the ground up

Jim Munn, 60, was 10 years old when his dad and grandfather began building the Industrial Avenue facility.

“As a kid, I was there every day working. I was painting doors, cleaning tools and pulling weeds,” Munn said.

In his free time, he would hunt rabbits and quail in the surrounding prairie with Liz, a mixed-breed stray dog his dad had rescued.

“From the back of that warehouse going due east, there was nothing but prairie. You could walk for miles, and now it’s completely developed,” he said.

As he got a bit older, Munn picked up more duties at A-1 U-Store-It.

In recent years, A-1 U-Store-It had fallen into disrepair.
In recent years, A-1 U-Store-It had fallen into disrepair.

“What would happen when someone would not pay after 30 days, we would put a lock on them. If they didn’t pay after another 60 days, we would move all their stuff out,” Munn said.

It was Munn’s job to move those tenants’ leftover belongings to a warehouse his grandfather owned in town. Williams and Munn would try to sell what they could, but most of it wasn’t worth much. Most of the time, selling the items didn’t even cover the overdue rent.

Following the advice of an attorney, the facility would send notification letters to the overdue tenants, but most of the time the renters just let their belongings go, according to Munn.

“The only things people wanted back the most were heirlooms and old pictures of the family,” he said.

Storing potato chips

Williams and Munn soon discovered it wasn’t just households that were interested in storage.

After a few years being open, a representative from another Texas-based company came into Williams and Munn’s office. The representative, from snack company Frito-Lay, needed to find a facility where the company could store potato chips and distribute them to local stores.

Lay's potato chips
Russ Williams and Bob Munn built warehouses for storage of potato chips made by Frito-Lay.

At the time, Williams and Munn were planning a second building at the Industrial Avenue facility. They offered to build a portion of those units with a raised concrete loading dock just for Frito-Lay. A deal was struck. They would go on to build special units for Frito-Lay at the company’s other facilities, helping Frito-Lay create a distribution network across Texas.

That business relationship carries on to this day. Williams and Munn later built dedicated warehouses for Frito-Lay around the U.S. Jim Munn still operates some of those warehouses, most of which are in Michigan. Munn also runs an oil and gas services business that operates in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Munn divides his time between Michigan and West Texas.

Meanwhile, Munn’s self-storage facility in Midland stays full most of the time. It’s occupied mostly by longtime tenants.

As for the Industrial Avenue facility in Odessa, Munn isn’t sure why the person who bought the facility from his grandfather let it end up in such poor condition. But he’s happy to see it rejuvenated by its new owners.

“Whoever owns it now did a great remodel. Odessa is booming, and that area of town has redeveloped nicely,” Munn said.

Odessa TX
The oil boom in Odessa, TX, has triggered a surge in population.

Population surge

Odessa and Midland, which are less than 20 miles apart, are the second- and third-fastest growing metro areas in the country, respectively, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Both cities grew by 3.3 percent from July 2012 to July 2013. According to 2010 figures from the Census Bureau, the region’s population exceeds 274,000.

Before the recent oil boom, you could rent an apartment in the Midland-Odessa area for about $600; recently, average prices have climbed past $1,100 a month.

New self-storage facilities are cropping up around the region to accommodate the growing population. People are flocking to fill jobs in the biggest energy boom that the area has seen in decades, and many of them need space to stash their work tools or personal belongings. It’s not uncommon for new arrivals to drop off their stuff at a storage unit and live in a hotel until they find a permanent home, one local self-storage manager said.

Odessa TX self-storage
As the population of the Midland-Odessa area has grown, so has the number of self-storage facilities.

Self-storage expansion 

Even though the Midland-Odessa area’s economy is exploding, the publicly traded self-storage companies don’t own any local facilities.

CubeSmart manages four locations for W.P. Carey, a national REIT with holdings in self-storage. W.P. Carey bought the facilities in 2012 for $33 million; the portfolio covers more than 360,000 square feet.

Private operators are taking advantage of the area’s fiery growth, though. Storage facilities like Guardian Self Storage and More Space Storage — complete with upscale management offices — recently have sprung up. About 20 facilities now serve Odessa and Midland.

“West Texas is driven by oil, and that is all there is to it. I’ve seen it boom, and I’ve seen it bust,” Munn said.

Five years ago, he said, land development was practically nonexistent. Now, Munn said, “it is booming again.”

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Alexander Harris