In New Mexico, public officials are cryptically referring to what the Albuquerque Journal calls a “data hosting company called Greater Kudu LLC.”
Here in Utah, public officials refer only to something called “Project Discus,” which sounds like a track-and-field training center.
In Luleå, Sweden, an obscure town near the Arctic Circle that proved no match for my intrepid bicycling skills as a Mormon missionary nearly 40 years ago, local politicians recently spoke in hushed tones about “Project Gold.”
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That was before Facebook, the Internet giant that likely stores most of the world’s photos of children and grandchildren, not to mention all those cat videos, actually broke ground. Today, the selfie you take with Uncle Ernie at the family reunion may well be stored in Luleå’s data-storage facility now affectionately known as the ”Node Pole,” which The Guardian described recently as being the equivalent of 1,000 feet wide and about 330 feet long, with a large perimeter fence designed to keep moose away.
But with 350 million pictures, 4.5 billion likes and 10 billion new messages coming every day, Facebook is part of a world in which, The Guardian said, the rate of data generated worldwide doubles about every 18 months.
In other words, expect more data centers.
So why the secrecy?
When it comes to economic development, the usual reasons likely apply. If you’re a big company trying to locate a huge facility, you don’t want to tip off all the landowners that you’re looking to buy.
And then there is the desire for tax incentives and to get communities, or states, to compete with one another. Secrecy helps that.
Luleå was in fierce competition with other cities in Sweden. New Mexico is in competition with West Jordan.
And don’t be fooled by statements that Facebook wants to break ground here by the end of the month. The competition isn’t over.
Albuquerque Business First reported this week that New Mexico moved a step ahead when its Public Regulation Commission held a public hearing to discuss Facebook’s energy needs, including three proposed solar facilities. No one showed up to comment.
Here in Utah, we are no strangers to economic development. We may not be the Node Pole, but we have our own Silicone Slopes, which is a bit more prosperous than anything in Northern Sweden or New Mexico. We know what data centers can mean for the economy. Ebay, Oracle and EMC already have them here, which, as the state is quick to remind everyone, have helped attract other jobs to the area.
A recent story in Ad Week described the Wasatch Front as a place with “record amounts of venture capital flowing in,” and with at least a half-dozen companies valued at $1 billion or more and many more coming.
We even have that super-secret NSA data center in Bluffdale adding who-knows-what to our economy.
But this also should give us a level of sophistication that makes us unafraid of public scrutiny.
The possibility of Facebook coming to West Jordan became public knowledge in recent days, but it has been in discussions below the surface for about a year and a half, West Jordan Mayor Kim Rolfe told the Deseret News. It’s time for a little sunshine.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams is notable for being the only politician to voice skepticism, which is something you can afford to do if you’re a Democrat in Utah.
He puts the proposed tax incentives at $240 million and says the facility needs a commitment of 5.3 million gallons of water daily, although it won’t actually use that much.
Those figures need some context, and some explanation. Water is a precious resource in a metro area that is growing quickly on a desert. Tax incentives need to be weighed, as well, against impacts to schools and other public services, and then weighed against promised benefits.
Governments are good at promising returns on tax incentives, but not so good at measuring whether those promises come true. As one recent study in New York noted, incentives are meant to accomplish things the private market wouldn’t do on its own.
Taxpayers have a duty to be a little skeptical. A place with the high-tech synergy of the Wasatch Front shouldn’t be afraid to toss “Project Discus” around a bit before signing on the bottom line.