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Facebook coming to Iowa

BY QUENTIN MISIAG | APRIL 24, 2013 5:00 AM

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Facebook will soon make a home in central Iowa, and community and officials believe the business could provide greater opportunities for students.

Iowa scored two high-tech home runs Tuesday morning, after Facebook and Google each unveiled plans for more than $700 million in data-center capital investments — paving the way for the creation of dozens of technology and construction jobs.

During a press conference with Gov. Terry Branstad on Tuesday, the long-rumored 194-acre site off Interstate-80 near Altoona’s Bass Pro Shops was announced as the future for the social-media giant.

Phase one — a $299.5 million, 476,000-square-feet facility— will create at least 31 jobs paying an average of $23.12 an hour. The Menlo Park, Calif., company hopes to achieve LEED Gold certification. As of now, plans are to break ground this summer and to serve user traffic in 2014.

Google, whose current Council Bluffs operations are valued at more than $1 billion, announced a fourth data facility installment on Tuesday, at a cost of $400 million. Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., has operated data facilities in West Des Moines and downtown Des Moines since 2011 and 2012.

But will the projects — touted as statewide economic drivers — truly result in all-Iowa results?
University of Iowa computer-science Professors Ted Herman and Alberto Segre have witnessed a number of their recent students graduate and begin careers with Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft. Each time, they see those students migrate to the coasts, not stay in Iowa.

They remain skeptical that recent announcements would result in added interest for the Iowa City and the local college communities.

“[The investment] couldn’t hurt, but my theory is when some of the larger names are announced, they have turned out not to be job generators,” Herman said.

Herman said that although local college graduates will seek out in-state tech firms for initial employment, he believes large tech companies will continue to employ the majority of their workforce in certain geographic pockets.

“They’re going to stick with where they know you can get a high value of people,” he said. “It’s hard [to bring employees to] the middle.”

After graduation, UI junior and computer-science major Kirsten Wohlford said she plans on living abroad, working in a technologically focused company. She believes Iowa can position itself well enough to the point to pull itself out of the “flyover state” stigma.

“I think most people get pulled away from Iowa,” she said of college graduates. “I don’t think we’ll ever be another Silicon Valley, but I know a lot of cool things are happening with wind energy, and I think we can attract those types of companies.”

Two additional area officials, however, disagree, seeing the expanded presence of Facebook and Google as drivers for educational advancement, particularly in regards to the UI.

Dubbing the dual data centers a “tremendous economic benefit to Iowa,” UI economics lecturer Patrick Barron called upon the university and other teaching institutions to change with the times by way of tech education task forces or risk getting left behind.

“This is going to change education, away from more traditional lines into high-tech, almost training or tech schools,” he said. “This is where all the money is going and where the jobs are going, and you’d better make sure people get a good grounding for education.”

Because of a strong, sustained local labor force, Barron said, he doesn’t anticipate many Iowa City residents leaving the area for a two-hour minimum commute.

Iowa City/Coralville Convention and Visitors Bureau President Josh Schamberger said the data centers’ locations two and four hours west won’t deter from what he calls foreseeable partnerships with the regent universities, particularly in job recruitment and internship opportunities.

Facebook spokesman Michael Kirkland said the company’s eminent arrival to the Des Moines suburb is tied to the company’s demand for “hyper-efficient infrastructure” and expansion of new and future services, including Facebook Home.

“There’s great access to fiber, power, a shovel-ready site, and great partnerships with local leaders,” he said. “When it came down to it, it just became very clear it was the right place for us.”

Kirkland said the company is committed to working with the local colleges and universities in the communities it operates in. A data center in Forest City, N.C., for example, has a partnership with the nearby Isothermal Community College. Although he couldn’t confirm future partnerships with the UI, Iowa State, or UNI such as internships, he said if history is any indication, that may be a likely result.

Bruce Lehrman of the Cedar Rapids-based data center provider Involta said Facebook’s and Google’s arrival is clear evidence that the state is a burgeoning model for a tech-friendly lifestyle. The company currently operates seven data centers across the country.

“I think we have a lot of good momentum for entrepreneurship in the state of Iowa,” he said. “Since we started our first company in 1996, the amount of entrepreneurship that has developed has been just crazy. The work being done in the Iowa City area, and Startup City Des Moines — it’s a huge opportunity.”


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