12 Nov 2011

Apple, Google, Facebook turn WNC Asheville Area into Tech Hub

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Apple’s new $1 billion dollar data center looms large on Google Earth, putting its Maiden, N.C., home on the map. From the roof to its sides, the 500,000-square-foot building is painted white to reflect the sun’s heat back into space.

It would be unfair to call Maiden, population 3,409, an unlikely place for a new data center. Large cloud providers are building monolithic facilities in areas that offer relatively low-cost land as well as abundant and somewhat inexpensive electricity. Western North Carolina, where Maiden is located, fits such a bill.

Google has already built a $600 million data center in Lenoir, N.C., less than an hour’s drive from Maiden. And Facebook is building a $450 million, 300,000 square foot data center in Forest City, N.C., just over an hour way.

When Google announced plans for its North Carolina data center in 2007, Scott Millar, president of the Catawba County Economic Development Corp., was hopeful that the decision would draw the curiosity and interest of other tech firms.

Now, Millar said, “I think the dynamics that brought Google are still in place for others.” The addition of an Apple data center has only increased interest in the area, he noted.

“Having the Apple brand in our community says to a lot of folks that if Apple’s investing here, then we can invest here,” said Millar.

It also has intangible benefits, particularly among young people who see the Apple logo and think, “Maybe there is a future for me here,” he said.

The region is appealing to data centers partly because it has a good electric grid. There’s a long legacy of furniture and textile manufacturing, both power-intensive industries.

Tax breaks help as well. Apple has received 10-year 50% break in real estate taxes and an 85% break in personal property taxes. The economic development effort also includes fast turnaround on permits, and for Apple, a building inspector was stationed on-site to help speed construction, said Millar.