Sign of the Times: Columbus Wins Facebook

Jeff Bell
Rachel Peterson, Facebook director of data center strategy and development

Persistence paid off big time for New Albany in its pursuit of a $750 million Facebook data center project that will bring about 100 high-paying jobs to the city and burnish central Ohio's growing reputation as a go-to region for companies driven by technology.

Facebook announced in August it would build a 970,000-square-foot data center on a 345-acre site in the New Albany International Business Park off Route 161 and Beech Road. The city and New Albany Co. had tried to land a smaller Facebook data center project in 2015, but the social media company decided to build elsewhere. Instead of giving up at that point, local officials continued to stay in touch with the company.

Those conversations included updates on improvements to infrastructure such as water lines, fiber optics and electric power, says Jennifer Chrysler, New Albany's director of community development. The city also reorganized staff members to better manage reviews and approvals of development plans and construction permits. In addition, staffers worked with the New Albany City Council on getting tax incentives in place.

“Every time we would make a change,” Chrysler recalls, “we would call site selectors and our friends at Facebook and say: ‘We're just touching base to update you on what's different about us now than when we met in 2015.'”

The goal, she says, was to help solve what she calls “the speed-to-market equation” for tech companies facing tight turnaround times for expansion projects.

That strategy ended up being critical when Facebook started looking for another data center site late last year, says Matt McQuade, managing director of business development at Columbus 2020. The regional economic development organization worked closely with the city of New Albany, New Albany Co. and JobsOhio on the Facebook deal.

“Delivering everything on (Facebook's) timeline was challenging, but we were able to do it,” McQuade says.

It also helped that Amazon Inc. had previously chosen New Albany for one of its three data centers in central Ohio.

“That was a very powerful validation of the competiveness of the Columbus market,” McQuade says, adding the region also has a reliable power supply, ample water resources, competitive tax incentives and plenty of tech talent needed by data centers.

The New Albany location offers excellent access to fiber-optics, a strong pool of construction and operations talent, and a “great set of community partners who have helped us move forward quickly with our project,” according to a Facebook spokesperson. The company also cited the “diligent and swift” process for key development milestones, including permits and approvals, by local and state officials.

“This is a big win for Ohio, the Columbus region, New Albany and us,” says Jack Kessler, cofounder and chairman of the New Albany Co., the real estate development firm that has led New Albany's transformation since the early 1990s. “I think the Facebook project will bring more companies here. We're on a lot of people's short list now that wouldn't have known where New Albany was a few years ago.”

Kessler praised New Albany Co. President William Ebbing for continuing to court Facebook even after the company went elsewhere in 2015.

“We had a lot of help from Columbus 2020, JobsOhio and city of New Albany,” Kessler says. “The teamwork to get to the finish line was very impressive.”

He and others familiar with the Facebook deal also praised the efforts by American Electric Power in meeting the power needs for the data center.

Energy, water and fiber-optics are critical for data centers, and New Albany had those in place when the Facebook opportunity arose, says Ted Griffith, managing director for information technology at JobsOhio, the state's private economic development organization.

Industry expertise in the information technology and energy industries are also important, he says, as is the availability of talent needed by data centers.

State and local tax incentives also helped close the Facebook deal.

Chrysler says New Albany is providing a 100 percent, 15-year real property tax abatement on each phase of the project. It is also waiving up to $250,000 in building and permit fees. Additionally, the state approved a 2 percent, 10-year Job Creation Tax Credit for Facebook along with a 100 percent, 15-year data center sales tax exemption.

While the data center will bring jobs and tax revenue to New Albany, the biggest benefit may prove to be what the Facebook project can do for the future of the city, region and state, according to Chrysler.

“Attracting a project of this caliber shows New Albany has emerged as an economic engine for the state,” she says. “We're looking forward to the future and creating an environment for more technology companies to locate here.”

Jeff Bell is a freelance writer.