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Amazon keeps building data centers in Umatilla, Morrow counties

Another data center complex is in the works between Westland and Cottonwood Bend roads near Hermiston
George Plaven

East Oregonian

Published on March 17, 2017 5:55PM

Last changed on March 18, 2017 9:22PM

Construction is underway on an expansion of the Amazon data center at the Port of Umatilla on Friday in Umatilla.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris

Construction is underway on an expansion of the Amazon data center at the Port of Umatilla on Friday in Umatilla.

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Another batch of data centers is in the works for Umatilla County.

Online retail giant Amazon, which operates two server farms near Boardman and one near Umatilla, is proposing a third complex west of Hermiston consisting of four additional data centers. The company recently purchased about 120 acres of land between Westland and Cottonwood Bend roads, adjacent to the Hermiston Generating Plant near the intersection interstates 84 and 82.

Data centers arrived on the scene locally in 2011, and since then Amazon — doing business through a holding company called Vadata — has continued to expand at the Port of Umatilla and Port of Morrow industrial parks along the Columbia River.

Though they look like nondescript warehouses, the buildings are home to racks of computer servers that host everything from email to streaming movies, or in this case, internet shopping. It takes a lot of water and electricity to keep those servers running without overheating, which is why Umatilla and Morrow counties are such appealing locations.

Each new center provides roughly 40 jobs with an average salary of $68,000 per year. According to Jim Footh, real estate development manager for Vadata, the company needs to build multiple data center campuses to provide backup in case one of the buildings goes down.

“We cannot create that redundancy and risk aversion by developing a single, super-size data center campus,” Footh wrote in a letter to the Umatilla County Planning Department. “Rather, to achieve redundancy and risk aversion, our campuses must be located a few miles apart.”

The Westland site is favorable because it is close to existing high-voltage power lines that serve the Hermiston Generating Plant, Footh said. Vadata has also signed a letter of intent to use the city of Hermiston’s regional water system. The data centers will require 400 gallons per minute of water to keep the servers cool.

Byron Smith, Hermiston city manager, said Vadata will be required to pay for improvements on the system to accommodate the increased capacity. Smith said the city is also discussing an extension of the Hermiston Enterprise Zone to give Vadata a break on its property taxes.

“We’re still working out the details,” Smith said. “We anticipate that will come very soon.”

In addition to the proposed Westland campus, Vadata is in the process of building its fourth data center at the McNary Industrial Park east of Umatilla, and has developed two sites within the Port of Morrow’s East Beach Industrial Park near Boardman.

Carla McLane, Morrow County planning director, said Vadata has eight data centers either in operation or under construction between the two sites. The company is considering a third Boardman location, McLane added, though nothing has been filed yet.

The projects have proved to be a huge boost to the county’s tax base, McLane said.

“This ends up being hundreds of millions of dollars in investment,” she said.

Construction of new data centers is happening so fast at the Port of Morrow that general manager Gary Neal said he’s had trouble keeping up. While the centers don’t hire a ton of people, Neal said they have helped to diversify the local job market.

With the expansion of the industry has come the need for a specially trained workforce, which is why Blue Mountain Community College now offers a course in how to become a data center technician. The program, which is wrapping up its second full year, will soon be taught at the new BMCC Workforce Training Center in Boardman after the facility opens later this summer.

Instructor Pete Hernberg said that among his most recent class of students, only one hasn’t yet found a job in the field.

“There’s been rapid growth in data centers, and that has been driven by growth in cloud technology,” said Hernberg, referring to the number of traditional businesses that now use cloud-based technology.

All that growth means dollars and investment in smaller communities like Umatilla, which has seen benefits from the McNary data center campus. City manager Russ Pelleberg said construction brings 200-300 people into town, filling up local restaurants and motels.

The creation of new permanent jobs also means the city is drawing interest from housing developers, one of whom Pelleberg said is ready to move on a project building 28 new homes.

“The more of these data centers that are built, the more people they employ and the more it puts into our economy,” Pelleberg said. “I’m excited to see them stay in the region here.”

As for additional infrastructure, Pelleberg said the city is working on a $3 million project that will take non-contact cooling water from the data centers and route it to the West Extension Irrigation District, giving farmers more water for crops. That project is expected to break ground later this year.

“We’ve worked hand in hand with the West Extension Irrigation District,” Pelleberg said. “It’s a total win-win for everybody.”

Before the Westland data centers can become a reality, the Umatilla County Board of Commissioners must approve rezoning the property from exclusive farm use to light industrial. The county planning commission will hold a public hearing at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 23 to discuss the request.

The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Justice Center Media Room, 4700 NW Pioneer Place in Pendleton.

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Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0825.



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