Data centers haven’t just changed computing, they’ve changed communities

The technology inside data centers sparks immense industry analysis and speculation. After the media leave, though, data center towns themselves can be ignored, even as they change.
I saw this up close while working as a business reporter at the Bulletin daily newspaper in Bend, Ore., a 45-minute drive from Prineville, where Facebook (s fb) and Apple (s aapl) have been constructing data centers and where other companies have considered building similar structures.
To me, the arrival of the data centers turned Prineville’s folksy mayor, Betty Roppe, into an advocate and a celebrity. What’s more, her city has become known as a destination for cloud computing.
Like Prineville, data center meccas Loudoun County, Va., and Quincy, Wash., have also gone through changes — an economic-development focus, a housing boom and at least one environmental issue.

Prineville, Ore.

Nine thousand two hundred fifty-three people called Prineville home in 2010, according to U.S. Census data, and the mayor, Betty Roppe, doesn’t make it seem bigger than it is. She’s proud of her city for attracting Apple and Facebook, and at the same time she’s not afraid to be honest about not being tech-savvy.

Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, left, and Prineville Mayor Betty Roppe

Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, left, and Prineville Mayor Betty Roppe

“I’m kind of in that senior-citizen group that’s not as comfortable with computer systems,” said Roppe, adding that while she has signed up for Facebook, she doesn’t use cloud-storage products such as Dropbox and Evernote.
But on Facebook, Roppe is a friend of Ken Patchett, the manager of Facebook’s Prineville data center. She’s even taking care of Patchett’s border collie now that Patchett lives in a place where dogs are not allowed, she said.
In 2011 she appeared alongside a Facebook executive to promote Facebook business profiles. She came on stage at the Facebook data center’s grand opening that year, suggesting local approval of the social networking site’s presence. And she’s gone to Washington, D.C., three or four times to show support for federal legislation that would ensure water and hydroelectric power access for the city — two resources that data centers covet.
The city of Prineville, is considering the construction of a roundabout to ease traffic near the Apple and Facebook data centers.

The city of Prineville is considering the construction of a roundabout to ease traffic near the Apple and Facebook data centers.

Reporters from the New York Times, Dow Jones Newswires and Data Center Knowledge have quoted her, while The Economist, Wired, GigaOM and other media outlets have visited her city.
In addition to the sudden media interest, the city has seen other changes. Prineville city planning staffers have dealt with legal matters stemming from executives’ concerns about regulatory issues in play in California. And additional traffic on nearby state Highway 126 has caused the Oregon Department of Transportation to enforce a 45 mph speed limit, down from 55 mph, east and west of the roads leading to the Facebook and Apple data centers. Prineville officials are even discussing the construction of a roundabout to ease traffic (see map).

Quincy, Wash.

When people in Prineville talk about wanting to add more data centers, they were sometimes thinking of Quincy, Wash.
Quincy, a five-hour drive north of Prineville, is home to about 7,000 people and five data centers — Microsoft, Yahoo, Intuit, Dell and Sabey Corp. — with a sixth from Vantage Data Centers in development.

Quincy Mayor Jim Hemberry

Quincy Mayor Jim Hemberry

Over the years, the increased sales tax revenue has helped the city build a library, purchase a new ladder truck for the fire district serving Quincy and add a bevy of additional equipment for the Quincy Police Department, said Mayor Jim Hemberry.
Property tax revenue from the data center operations has allowed the city to add employees, even through the economic recession, the mayor said.
The data center cluster “hasn’t been an issue that has affected the (Quincy) population in any negative way, in my opinion,” Hemberry said.
If anything, the rise of Quincy as a data center hub has brought attention from other industries, contributing further to the city’s employment base and economic diversity.
Plus, he said, “We’ve had a lot of new housing starts.” In a typical year, five to 10 homes are built. Now, it’s more like 400 to 500.
But just because a data center goes up in city doesn’t mean the mayor becomes an advocate. Patty Martin, a former mayor of Quincy, has become a prominent critic of data centers’ nearby backup diesel generators, which appear to cause air pollution. She has challenged Washington’s Department of Ecology on its decision to grant permits for Microsoft to build more generators. Hemberry declined to comment on the issue.

Loudoun County, Va.

AOL (s aol) was the first company to construct a data center in Loudoun County, Va., in 1997. Then came Equinix Inc. (s eqix) and MCI Worldcom, which Verizon Communications Inc. (s vz) acquired. But only in the past six years has northern Virginia become a hot spot for data centers, and collocation specifically, said Buddy Rizer, assistant director of the county’s economic-development department. (North Carolina, which shares a border with Virginia, has also seen an influx in data centers, as my colleague Katie Fehrenbacher reported in a four-part series.)

Buddy Rizer, assistant director of Loudoun County's economic-development department

Buddy Rizer, assistant director of Loudoun County’s economic-development department

Rizer himself has gone from a general-purpose economic-development staffer with an IT bent to focusing nearly exclusively on data center retention and recruitment. Rather than send out county supervisors to communicate with data center operators, the elected officials have Rizer take care of it.
Today the county boasts 8 million square feet of data centers in operation or under construction and sees as much as 70 percent of all internet traffic flying through its facilities, according to a county fact sheet. Big cloud providers such as Amazon (s amzn) Web Services and Rackspace (s rax) keep servers in Ashburn, among other places.
Given all of that progress, Rizer said he travels to other states and countries to talk about the county’s achievements in data-center development.
When asked where the data centers lie inside the county, Rizer said, “Primarily they are in Ashburn, but, even more concentrated than that, they’re in place that we call Data Center Alley, up and down Loudoun County Parkway and in the area of Waxpool.” And yes, he did come up with the name Data Center Alley.
Over the years, the county has streamlined the process of building a data center there with a “Fast Track for Priority Commercial Development.” Staffers have lined up the right zoning for potential development sites, and county supervisors have showed support for expanding exemptions of Virginia’s sales and use taxes on new computer equipment.
On top of it all, the county has moved most of its documents to a private cloud, Rizer said.
“If you’re out selling yourself as a technology location, you want to make sure that you can walk the walk and talk the talk,” he said.