Facebook, Google Expansions Raises Question Why Not Eastern Iowa?

By Dave Franzman, Reporter

HIAWATHA, Iowa - A double dose of good economic news came to central and western Iowa on Tuesday with announcements by both Facebook and Google.

The social networking company made it official by announcing a $300-million dollar data center facility in Altoona near Des Moines. And Google, which already operates an even larger data center in Council Bluffs, unveiled a $400-million dollar expansion in that western Iowa community. Once completed, the project would bring Google's investment in Iowa to $1.5-billion dollars.

But while eastern Iowa economic developers celebrated the good news for all of Iowa, the question is will a big name company ever consider such an expansion in the I-380 corridor?

There are data farm operations in the corridor now—but nothing near that scale.

One example is Enseva, a Waterloo-based company that operates a data center in Hiawatha that opened last fall. In many ways, it resembles what Google and now Facebook will have in other parts of the state. The difference, of course, is size. The Enseva facility in Hiawatha was a $12-million dollar project with seven or eight employees needed to oversee the high tech computer equipment. Enseva houses racks of computer equipment with most of the space leased to outside companies.

But chief information officer Chris Sevey said eastern Iowa could certainly compete for the large, big name data farm operations. However, he also said Council Bluffs and Altoona might have some slight advantages.

"Obviously, there is a larger pool of talent to draw from in those larger (Des Moines metro) areas. And there will be a few extra providers in terms of fiber (internet) connectivity," Sevey said.

Still, Sevey said in a power-hungry industry like data farms, the biggest factor in deciding where to locate is usually electric rates. The Enseva building in Hiawatha uses as much power, by itself, as the nearby city of Vinton—a community numbering more than 5,000 people.

Sevey said many computer server or data farms located on the coasts at first because of faster internet connections and proximity to major software and computer companies. But he noted that Iowa is starting to get a reputation as a place that can offer cheaper power compared to many states and now fast internet connections comparable to anywhere.

"They're (data farm operators) starting to see the benefits of a low cost electrical infrastructure to meet their needs as well as the same fiber infrastructure you see in California," he said.

One economic developer said the fact Google and now Facebook are in Iowa are located in Iowa will make it easier to go after other companies in the same business.

Dennis Jordan, Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance V.P., said "I'm just thankful it landed in the state of Iowa and congratulations to Altoona. I tell you this just makes my job easier when I'm out working on behalf of the other communities for other data center companies."

Jordan and others connected with economic development said communities often don't know when big name companies are looking at them for potential expansion. In many cases, third parties make the initial contacts and get information about a community. And if you don't hear back, you don't know what you missed.
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