High-tech ‘crops’ growing fast in Quincy, but will the bounty last?

Jun 27, 2011

QUINCY, Wash. – Located just north of the Gorge in the eastern part of the state, the town of Quincy used to be a stop for trains to get more water. But in the last five years it’s quickly becoming a regional center for the online world. That’s because email messages, family photos and tax info are being stored in huge data centers here.

It’s a new kind of crop for this rural farming community, but some are asking if the bounty will last?

Quincy is a flat grid surrounded by orchards and huge fields and home to under 7,000 people. And, it's a perfect place for running data centers that require huge tracks of undeveloped land, water and a steady flow of relatively cheap power – which they can get from nearby Northwest dams.

Stepping into a warehouse that covers 140,000 square feet, an area bigger than Seattle’s Safeco Field, it can be mind-boggling to see rows and rows of stacked servers about 8-feet-high all whirling and clucking along as massive air-conditioning units cool them down.

Chances are, if you check your Yahoo email account right now, you are connecting to information on those servers, said Lisa Karstetter, a spokeswoman for one plant and a Quincy native.

Five years ago, when Microsoft, Dell and Yahoo came calling, many residence were excited by the prospect of an economic boom stemming from the growth of the centers. One guy was especially excited.

“We’ve seen a lot of things happen, but it’s been great,” said Tim Snead, the city administrator.

Several data centers have already been built and now four more are under construction – Snead calls it “farming electrons.” And this new crop has tripled Quincy’s property tax revenue. Now the town has a new library, playground toys and road improvements.

Employment concerns

But are the centers creating jobs for the people of Quincy? That’s hard to gauge.

Turns out after these massive facilities are built, there isn’t much need for a lot of workers. Many people around town say they’ve never heard of an opening at the data centers. And there isn’t anywhere nearby to get trained to become qualified to work at them.

Prabin Joshi, the owner of the Shortstop gas station on the north end of town, said he sees a lot of people working at the centers.

But “all of them are from Seattle or big cities. It would be great if they could give training for people from Quincy, and give them a scholarship, send them to school.”

Still Joshi says he is grateful for the hundreds of construction workers in town and the bump in his business. Yahoo’s latest plant required 200 workers at the peak of construction.

Uncertain future

Quincy’s data center story is still being written.

Until recently, Washington gave tax breaks on computers and energy to data centers that built in most counties. But the latest effort to extend those tax breaks died in Olympia earlier this year. 

Consequently, after the construction workers go back home, it will remain to be seen if Quincy’s data center bloom is a one-time reaping or a continual harvest.

Copyright 2011 Northwest Public Radio