In small towns, people gossip. They talk to their neighbors. They talk about their neighbors. And that includes corporate neighbors.
Just five minutes south of downtown Lenoir, in the center of Caldwell County, there are two giant buildings, flanked by tall cooling towers, rising above rolling fields.
It’s a Google facility, and it’s shrouded in secrecy.
According to Deborah Murray, who runs the local economic development commission, it has been that way since the beginning.
“There had been this great mystery that had been brewing in our community for a long time, and everybody had an opinion as to what it was going to be and what it was going to do,” Murray says.
Officially, it’s a data center, but some residents have their own theories – that Google is running experiments on space aliens or a Sasquatch. But there are other mysteries more-grounded in reality.
“Google doesn’t tell us how many people they have hired,” Murray says. “We continue to ask. That’s one of their secrets.”
And it is one that really bothers many Lenoir residents, like Yvonne Miller. She works at a bookstore off of Main Street.
“Personally, I can’t see that it has done anything for our town,” Miller says.
But is that really true? I decided to see for myself.
Google’s data center is up the road from an old furniture factory, and security is pretty tight. I give the guard my driver’s license, and ten minutes later, I go through the gate and meet Enoch Moeller, the operations manager.
Google’s headquarters is far away, but there is still plenty of what makes Google Google. There’s a giant cafeteria, brimming with free food, just like in Silicon Valley. And there’s ping pong and foosball. But the decor here is very North Carolina. NASCAR memorabilia is everywhere.
“There is a place, near Charlotte, where we went and got a whole bunch of body parts from cars, from actual races, and we use those to decorate the facility,” Moeller says.
At least the parts I’m allowed to see.
This is a pretty short tour. We stop at a big, thick door, and I can hear something. But like most of Lenoir’s residents, I can only wonder what happens on the other side.
“I can’t say what’s specifically out there,” Moeller says. “But there is a lot of machines.”
They are processing searches, along with YouTube videos and Google Maps, Moeller tells me. Since my visit, Google has posted some pictures of the facility online.
According to Moeller, Google came to this remote county for a few reasons: power, cooling and land.
Furniture factories also require a lot of electricity and running water, so the infrastructure in this part of North Carolina is ready-made for data centers. But there is another big reason why Google picked Lenoir.
“I knew Google was going to get incentives – any big manufacturer that comes to town is going to get incentives,” T.J. Rohr says. He is on Lenoir’s city council.
Rohr voted against those incentives, which were very generous. He’s a libertarian.
“It was 100 percent of personal property exemption for the next 30 years, and 80 percent of real property exemption for the next 30 years,” Rohr explains. The incentive package Google got is reportedly worth $260 million total.
Google’s Enoch Moeller says he has heard the criticism – that those incentives haven’t created enough jobs for people in Caldwell County. But he says the first place he goes to, for resumes, is the local community college.
Moeller did tell me how many workers he has on staff – about 115 of them. But he knows that number disappoints many people.
“If you think of traditional manufacturing, a building of this size could potentially employ 400, 500 people in the same footprint,” Moeller says. “A data center, the density of individuals required to maintain a facility, is just not that high.”
Lenoir did get something else. Having a multinational tech company in your backyard does carry some cachet. But it didn’t replace the furniture industry. Or it hasn’t yet.
Still, it may have started something: a “data center corridor” in Western North Carolina. Google and Lenoir have some new corporate neighbors. Facebook and Apple are just up the road.