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In Rural Oregon, Efforts To Bring In Large Data Centers Raise Housing Costs

Jul 20, 2017
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In the Pacific Northwest, former mill towns have tried to reinvent their economies after decades of the timber industry's decline. And for the last few years, rural communities have welcomed data centers. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Amanda Peacher reports from the small town of Prineville.

AMANDA PEACHER, BYLINE: Facebook engineer Angie Weatherman is on a mission. She walks briskly through the data hall, a warehouse as big as a few football fields. She passes rows and rows of tall metal boxes full of little blinking lights. These are Facebook servers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FANS HUMMING)

ANGIE WEATHERMAN: Our ticketing system has notified us that we have a broken piece of hardware.

PEACHER: Her job is to fix that broken hardware. That background hum is the sound of thousands of fans that run constantly to keep Facebook servers cool. Weatherman pulls out the problem server.

WEATHERMAN: This one says it's a DIMM failure. So we're going to open up the case.

PEACHER: You're just troubleshooting all day.

WEATHERMAN: All day long, yep.

PEACHER: Before this job, Weatherman spent 10 years also working as a server technician at Les Schwab Tires in Prineville. When the company moved its headquarters to Bend, Ore., she faced a two-hour daily commute. When Facebook built its data center, she immediately saw a chance for a better job.

WEATHERMAN: Yep. I watched sites every day for opening positions.

PEACHER: This job pays well and means she gets to stay in the rural community where she grew up.

WEATHERMAN: I've lived here my whole life. My family all lives here. I just - I love it here.

BETTY ROPPE: Basically what Prineville was, was Les Schwab Tires, a lot of mill, a lot of blue-collar workers.

PEACHER: That's Prineville mayor Betty Roppe. The construction of Facebook and later Apple's data centers amounted to an economic shift in Prineville. The data centers don't employ nearly as many people as the old timber mills once did, but they do provide roughly 300 jobs that pay a lot more than most in town.

ROPPE: It's been a good business to bring to our community.

PEACHER: The problem is this also means housing costs are going up, and that's creating a housing crunch.

Seventy-two-year-old Caroline George hauls a basket of clothes and sheets into the local laundromat.

CAROLINE GEORGE: This is all new to me, the laundry thing.

PEACHER: She and her husband moved here from Redmond, Ore., where they did have a washing machine. They wanted to live in a smaller town like Prineville. For three months, they've been looking for housing but haven't had any luck. In the meantime, they're living at a campground.

GEORGE: We're looking for a rental, and we cannot find anything.

PEACHER: In four years, rents rose more than 56 percent in Prineville. That's one of the highest increases of any city in the nation according to Zillow. And George says most rentals cost more than her $850 monthly budget.

GEORGE: And I went and seen a grungy one. It was 1,080. I went and seen another one. These are all waiting lists, by the way. There's nothing available here. It's a six- to eight-month waiting list.

PEACHER: The city is scrambling to create new housing units, including some that are more affordable. But that will take a lot of time. For now, the data center construction is causing rents to go up.

GEORGE: There's a lot of jobs - lots. But there's nowhere to live.

PEACHER: This is the conundrum for smaller towns and rural parts of the country. When tech companies come in, they solve some problems by creating high-paying jobs. But they also create problems when the cost of living skyrockets. So while the data center boom is helping some people move up, a side effect is that others are being forced out. For NPR News, I'm Amanda Peacher in Prineville, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF J DILLA'S "DRIVE ME WILD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.