How does a new datacenter benefit the community?

IT people know what a datacenter is and just what it takes to keep one up and running. But what do the local communities (and their politicians) competing for these new datacenters think they are getting out of the deal?

There is no question that the datacenter construction business is booming, and that previously unheard of places are getting a serious investment in technology and building, but when I read the stories in the local papers about the investment being made in the communities getting the new structures, it's almost always clear that there is a serious disconnect between the realities of the datacenter and the understanding of the popular press.

These small town newspaper stories are always very similar; they lead with the really big number that represents the total investment that the new company in town plans to make in the datacenter. Rarely do the stories separate out the amount being invested in infrastructure from the monies being spent to equip the datacenter.  Then you find the quotes from the business investing in the datacenter, usually something along the lines of taking advantage of the local business climate, delivering the best possible services to their customers, and the obligatory "how green is my datacenter" commentary about the technology that will be used in the new facility.

Somewhere in the story you will then find a list of the economic incentives that were made to entice the new datacenter to town. Everything from tax rebates to outright cash grants turn up in these lists, all with the intention of enticing new businesses to town. And, of course, the mandatory quote from local politicians, proclaiming how this datacenter will be the start of an economic renaissance for the community.

And then finally, you find the number of jobs that the datacenter will create in the community. The numbers I've seen range from as few as a dozen, to a maximum of about fifty, with most of the datacenters planning to eventually employ fewer than 20 people.  In a rare moment of clarity, most of these stories seem to indicate an understanding that it is unlikely that these jobs will go to people in the local community.

When I talk to people involved in building these new datacenters they have some very specific goals, which other than being a good corporate neighbor, generally translate into "the datacenters will maintain as low a profile as possible." They select locations based on a number of economic factors, which, presuming there is an easily available telecommunications infrastructure, usually means low cost of land, power, and construction.  I've yet to hear "we made our investment in this location because so-and-so corp has already established a facility there." I have heard comments to the effect that the second player into a rural location usually doesn't get the same economic incentives that the first one did.  And that there are plenty of locations vying for these datacenters.

When I talk to the non-technical person about these issues, their perspective seems to be this; that they are seeing a huge (up to 200,000 square feet) facility being constructed and that must mean lots of jobs an opportunity. Some people don't seem to grasp that we aren't talking about call centers, with hundreds of employees, but rather big buildings crammed with hardware and as few people as possible. So while it seems that there is a temporary economic boost while the datacenter is being built, at least in construction jobs, the long-term value of a datacenter to a community, especially in terms of economic revitalization, has yet to be determined.