After the city of Kuna announced in February that Meta, the parent company of Facebook, would build its newest data center in the small southwest Idaho town, the city’s public officials were flooded with angry emails from upset residents.
Among more than 50 pages of emails to the city, residents gave myriad reasons why they opposed the idea. And the consolations of a new water treatment facility and funding for public services from Meta were not enough to sway those who felt ire toward the project.
“People are more passionate now than they used to be, so to speak,” Kuna Mayor Joe Stear said. “So people that really don’t like something, you hear from them rapidly and pretty intensely.”
One person who wrote in vowed to campaign against Stear in “every way possible” to ensure he never holds office in Idaho again, also calling Stear a “sell out” who should resign.
For the citizens of Kuna, Meta’s presumed politics play a significant role in community opposition to the project, according to emails obtained by the Idaho Press.
Many people who wrote to public officials called the private company a “socialist” organization with unconstitutional censorship policies. Private companies are not under the same obligations as the U.S. government when it comes to constitutional rights like free speech.
Some accused the company of looking to bring in “their horrible views and ways of thinking” or “shift the voting demographic” to represent the company’s “progressive ideology.” One person decried Meta’s presence in the state calling them “an enemy to Idaho and our views.”
But William Marks, community development manager for Meta’s west region, said the factors that drew the company to Idaho and to Kuna were more about infrastructure, namely, proximity to an airport, a strong power grid and access to renewable energy and water.
Marks said all of Meta’s data centers are powered by 100% renewable energy. The centers are at net zero. The one in Kuna will have a LEED Gold rating. LEED certification is a globally recognized symbol of sustainability achievement, according to the LEED website.
“We actually give back more energy into the grid than we use,” Marks said.
But power usage is not the biggest criticism of data centers. Water usage is.
“What is that going to do to the water that we need for crops and for animals and for local landscaping? You know, these are all the things that get swept under the rug of, well, the big, big green dollar bills,” Kuna resident Mychal Wilson said in an interview.
The past couple years have been anxiety-inducing when it comes to water levels in the state. Drought conditions brought on questions about early irrigation shut offs and increased use on water reserves this year. Due to an unusually wet start to the summer, Idaho farmers didn’t end up having to face that. But drought and water use concerns haven’t been fully alleviated as most of the Treasure Valley is still classified as being “abnormally dry,” according to data from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. And data centers are notorious for their water usage, according to NBC News.
But Meta says its data centers use 80% less water than an average data center.
“That’s something we’re really proud of,” Marks said.
The data center being built in Kuna did not have to purchase any additional water rights, according to Marks. They will operate off the ones already established for the location.
According to Meta spokeswoman Melanie Roe, the facility has set a goal to “restore more water than they consume” by 2030. Roe said the company plans on achieving this by “restoring 100% of the water our data center will consume into local watersheds” through water restoration projects. The company hasn’t announced what projects it will be involved with in the Treasure Valley. Roe said the Meta is currently looking for them. Additionally, the data center will use outdoor air only to cool its data halls. Roe said this should “significantly” reduce the amount of water used by the center.
Competing for local workforce
Wilson moved to Kuna from Nampa to get away from the big commercial projects going in like Amazon and GoGo squeeZ. She said it was hard for her to see land that could be used for farming sold to large, out-of-state companies that “don’t have the same affinity for our local customs, traditions, morals and values.”
In another vein, she also worries about what it will do to local businesses.
“I struggle with major corporations in any kind of context, because they don’t care about local people. And because my husband is a local business owner, and he’s working with locals and we — I’ve seen firsthand, big corporations like this phase out small business owners,” Wilson said.
Wilson said her husband has had a hard time keeping up with larger companies who can afford to pay higher wages. He had a job listed at $20 an hour and it took him six months to fill.
Stear said Wilson’s assumptions that the Meta data center will create a similar strain are “probably correct” to an extent.
“It’ll certainly affect the workforce,” Stear said.
The construction of the Meta site will create approximately 1,200 jobs, and once the first phase of the project is complete there will be about 100 permanent jobs to fill, according to Marks.
“What does that take from other businesses and other projects in the valley that might be more important long-term as opposed to a social media network that really is just poison. That’s ripping America apart, that has us at our neighbors’ throats and our family’s throats? Why is that a priority over our community?” Wilson said.
Stear said if he had initially known the amount of jobs it would take to fill during construction he would have been a little more concerned about it.
“I guess it’s one of those things where you just kind of gotta hope for the best and I think everything will work out just fine,” Stear said.
But Marks said the presence of Meta in the community, along with the amount it has invested into it, will be beneficial to local businesses and their workforces.
According to a study by RTI International in 2020, for every $1 million spent by Meta in capital investment, 14 additional jobs were created in the economy. And for every $1 million dollars spent in operational expenses, 18 jobs were created in the economy. Marks said Meta’s initial investment in Idaho totaled at about $800 million.
He said the company is also committed to using local vendors and suppliers.
Taken off guard
The most common complaint people wrote city officials about was being blindsided by the deal. Many wondered why the announcement of the center was the first time they heard about it. They thought there should be a period for public comment.
But for public comment to happen, there has to be a need for rezoning the property’s designated use or a decision of whether or not to annex it into the city. Stear said the land was already designated for industrial use and was annexed into the city, so public comment was not part of the procedure.
“We don’t get to discriminate on ... where people come from, who can locate here and who can’t and it’s the same with businesses,” Stear said.
The mayor added that while citizens don’t get to pick and choose which companies can come to their town, he would hope any companies coming into the city would consider if it was a good fit, value-wise, for both parties.
“If they’re far enough away from aligning with the values of the community, they’re never going to be welcome there and it’s going to just create a constant disturbance,” Stear said. “And I would hope that they would sense that enough to not want to locate there but I don’t know then you just kind of start getting to discriminating and I don’t know where you draw the line on that.”
Stear has also said that for a big part of the negotiation and planning process, the city didn’t even know which company it was dealing with.
The procedure for big commercial projects coming into the state starts at the Idaho Department of Commerce. The department grants the companies anonymity by issuing the projects code names. The data center’s code name was “Project Peregrine.”
“Companies want to protect their strategic information and planned decisions from their direct market competition, maintain confidentiality during real estate negotiations, and minimize rumors that could affect relationships with investors, suppliers, employees, and other stakeholders. Until the company is certain its project will move forward, they do not want its confidential business strategies made public,” Matt Borud, marketing and innovation administrator for Idaho Department of Commerce, said.
This anonymity doesn’t sit right with Wilson.
“I think there should be public disclosure prior to the deal being done. I don’t think that all of the hoops and dots and lines are signed and it’s a done deal and then you go ‘Oh, by the way,’” Wilson said. “Things done in shadow usually are done because they’re shameful. Or they’re immoral.”
The cities working with these companies normally do not learn their identities until late in the game. In an email to a constituent, Stear said that when working on the project he thought it would be a great deal for Kuna, but when Meta revealed its identity it “took some wind out of that sail.” Still, the project pressed onward.
And Stear has hope that everything will work out well.
“Meta has been pretty good to work with,” Stear said. “This data center, that’s one of the biggest projects in the state. So for little Kuna to bring a project like that in is a big deal.”