Editorial – Data centers big opportunity for region

Published 4:00 pm Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Some recent news from far western Virginia caught our eye, reminding us of an economic development opportunity for our region.

The Bristol Herald-Courier reported that elected boards in five localities — the counties of Lee, Scott, Wise and Dickenson, plus Norton City Council — passed resolutions of support for efforts to attract data centers to the region.

Western Tidewater should make a similar push as an economic development and land-use alternative to warehouses and solar farms, which are proliferating.

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Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced in January that Amazon Web Services would invest $35 billion to build multiple data centers in Virginia by 2040. Northern Virginia, which has been a hotbed for data center construction, apparently has more of them than it wants, so other regions of the state stand to capitalize on the opportunity.

Aside from the economic impact of new jobs and much-needed tax revenue for local governments, landing one of the Amazon facilities would demonstrate to citizens of Western Tidewater that elected and appointed leadership has a vision beyond warehouses, which bring some tax revenue but relatively few jobs — and create major highway congestion as 18-wheelers roll in and out.

Data centers, the Herald-Courier notes, serve as critical infrastructure for the storage, processing and distribution of vast amounts of information. The New York Times reported last month that “data centers are beginning to dot landscapes across the nation, from Virginia to Oregon.”

“Each has hundreds of servers and routers that send and receive data for everyday tasks like streaming content on mobile devices and handling high-speed financial trades,” the paper reported. “In the past few years, the need for data centers has rapidly increased, fueled by changing work habits during the pandemic and the growth of cloud-based technologies. That means more buildings, more land, more cooling systems and more electricity to support the physical infrastructure that runs 24/7.”

To be clear, data centers alone aren’t the answer economically for our region. Like warehouses, they don’t employ huge numbers of people and they aren’t the most pleasant structures aesthetically. But, other than the electrical grid, they are light burdens on infrastructure, especially roads. 

Youngkin said in January that “numerous localities” in the commonwealth are under consideration by Amazon, which will create a combined 1,000 new jobs. 

Communities under consideration “offer robust utility infrastructure, lower costs, great livability and highly educated workforces and will benefit from the associated economic development and increased tax base, assisting the schools and providing services to the community,” he said.

Southwest Virginia, in the localities’ resolution, touts its competitive workforce, robust infrastructure and a favorable business climate that make it an ideal location for data centers seeking to expand or establish operations.

Western Tidewater can make a similarly persuasive case.