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No movie will help you prepare for what's behind these walls | Carolyn Ossorio

The Federal Reserve Bank sits quietly on 11 acres of land in south Renton. - Carolyn Ossorio
The Federal Reserve Bank sits quietly on 11 acres of land in south Renton.
— image credit: Carolyn Ossorio

For the past couple of years I’d heard stories of a U.S. government monetary facility located somewhere in Renton.

Was it a mint?  A treasury? A bank?

Where was it located? By The Landing? Near Boeing?

These “stories” seemed as surreal as pirates returning from sea yelling stories about beautiful women with fish tales.

So I decided to find out if the stories were true. I mean where exactly is this big bank in Renton?

“You can’t miss the building as there’s nothing else around it except open land,” Steven Fisher, regional program manager at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and my designated tour guide told me in an email.

Perched on its own road surrounded by a fully fenced 11 acres of what was formerly the southern end of Longacres I found The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. The Fed bought the land from Boeing in 2008 and built a new high-tech facility (which from the distance resembles a college campus) that opened in 2011.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I pulled my minivan up to the security outpost. Things got serious pretty quick when a federal police officer with a big gun greeted me. Behind him and a set of intimidating gates were these huge cement pylons sticking out of the ground like Greek columns.

After my identity and purpose were verified, the officer conducted a full search inside my vehicle.

After I was cleared, some magic button was pressed, the arms of the gate lifted and the concrete pylons slowly descended back down into the earth.

This was serious security.

It was a beautiful summer day as I walked toward the entrance across immaculately manicured grounds in a creepy, where-are-all-the-birds-George Orwell-1984-kind of quiet.

Where were all the people?  I wondered.

Inside the building a guard encased in a bullet-proof steel box breathed into a microphone.

“It’s like airplane security. Place all your belongings on the conveyer belt and walk through the metal detector.”

Clearing another security checkpoint I walked inside the plush inner sanctum — wondering if it was OK to throw my gum in the empty pristine garbage can.

Still being watched, I decided to go for it.  It was just gum after all, not explosive C4 . . . at least I hoped.

Waiting for my guide I started to snoop around at the historical photos and documents on the wall.  They told the story of how the Federal Reserve Building San Francisco had come to Renton after 57 years in downtown Seattle.

I had moved on to the display case of five and ten thousand bills when Fisher came down.

“Do regular people ever come here?” I asked as we took the stairs up to the conference room.

“We do tours.”

Judging by the level of security and the absolute absence of any people it was hard to imagine throngs of people walking through these halls.

“Not many,” Fisher added.

“Has the bank ever been robbed?” I asked.

“No.” Fisher said holding the door to the conference room where I would watch a historical power-point presentation. There was a lot to learn, but bottom line: the Federal Reserve is a collection of 12 regional and 24 branches strategically located across the country.

They are the banks’ bank.  Which in laymen’s terms, they hold tons of money.

When I had asked enough of what I felt were serious questions, I got to the only one I was really interested in.

“Show me the $$$$!” I wanted to cry out Cuba Gooding Jr./Tom Cruise style.

But settled on, “So, umm, exactly how much is in the vault?”

I tried not to look like a salivating jackal.

“I can’t say,” Fisher said.  Sensing my disappointment he added, “A lot.  Are you ready to see?”

The vault itself is three stories encased in concrete reminiscent of the underground bunker beneath the White House where the president is ushered in the event of a nuclear war.

We waited in front of a complicated looking revolving door for my police escort.

“Sorry, but you can’t bring your notebook and pencil.  In the counting room you’ll need to keep your hands out of your pockets.” Fisher said, his eyes pointing at my hands stuffed in my jean pockets.

“Of course, now that you’ve told me not to put my hands in my pockets I won’t be able to stop,” I said trying to sound flip as we walked through more clicking locks, plate glass, and video cameras.

Knowing your every move is being monitored as a potential thief is intimidating and very exciting.

At last I saw people. According to Fisher, there are 95 employees at the branch.

The movies can’t prepare you for what I saw in the “cash rooms.”

The cash rooms are bullet-proof rooms where employees process cash that is brought in by armored car. Pallets of cash deposits are brought into a room accessible from the outside. Once the armored car has exited, the outer door is closed and the door on the inside is opened for Fed employees to verify the deposit and count the cash. The reverse is done when banks need money.

Since I wasn’t allowed to take a picture, imagine the laundry bins that housekeepers use in hotels. The cash room is filled with those laundry bins but instead of cleaning sprays, broom handles and toiletries the cash bins are loaded with bundles of cash that are stored in the vault.

The vault is the epicenter of the whole operation and when I peeked inside the image that came to mind was the government warehouse where they took the crated ark in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”  The vault is fully automated with a state-of-the-art robotics system that handles the carts.

According to Fisher, Each cart can hold 420 bundles and the vault has the capacity to hold 1,800 carts.

If the bundles were $100 bills, each cart would hold approximately $46 million.

According to research, approximately $1.1 billion per month is processed at the vault, although Fed officials will not disclose the exact dollar amount held at any given time.

“I told you the photo would be limited,” Steven said not unsympathetically at the end of our tour.  It was like he had read my mind: the photo op I wanted was of me sitting criss-cross apple sauce atop a mountain of cash.

Instead, he clicked a picture of me standing outside of the building in the only “safe” shot that didn’t reveal any secrets.

Despite any proof, I’ve had a great time recounting my tale of adventure at the Federal Reserve Bank. Describing mountains of cash, 007 security . . . it was all very exciting and I realized sounded a bit like the pirate tales of exotic mermaids.

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