Shuttered Factories Reborn As Data Centers
NOEL KING, HOST:
Closed factories and fossil fuel plants are being reborn as data centers. They hold computers for high-tech digital companies. Kate Kaye went to a former aluminum plant in Massena, N.Y., where a new data center is bringing new hope but also some new worries.
KATE KAYE: Little kids skated gingerly on the ice in the Massena Arena where Karen and Ronald Aldous (ph) waited for their grandson's hockey game to start. For decades, thousands of children here might have looked ahead to a job at one of the northern New York town's auto or aluminum plants. Now most of them have shut down. Karen lamented the toll job loss has taken on the area. She's felt it in the hockey community here.
KAREN ALDOUS: We've lost some great families that really supported the program. They've had to move on.
KAYE: But those factories relied on something still going strong - the hydropower dam right here on the St. Lawrence River. Today, energy infrastructure that provided power in the past, sometimes right on site, appeals to an emerging industry - electricity-hungry data centers, sites where industrial dinosaurs were left for dead. A Pennsylvania steel plant, a North Carolina textile mill, an Alabama coal-fired power plant have been reanimated as homes for computers used for digital data operations. Coinmint runs a data center inside a former aluminum plant here in Massena that was built to accommodate the extreme heat generated from smelting. These noisy computers inside it now get pretty hot too, says Coinmint chief operating officer Norbert Guiol.
NORBERT GUIOL: This is another reason why this site so attractive because it's so far north. And it has this scenario with this - I'm not going to call it natural air conditioning but air conditioning built in.
KAYE: Computers in this open-air building live inside shipping containers that keep out dirt. On a busy Friday night at Morley's American Grill in Massena, Joseph Lacombe (ph) described his job inspecting those computers. One of 80 workers in the data center, he recently got a promotion and relocated to Massena to be closer to his full-time job. Both Lacombe's grandfathers worked in the aluminum plant where he now makes a living.
JOSEPH LACOMBE: It's kind of crazy, you know, like, walking through and being like they walked this back in the day when it was the aluminum plant and to see what it is now.
KAYE: Dave LeClair Jr. was there the day they pulled the plug on the aluminum plant. He works with the United Steelworkers union local.
DAVE LECLAIR: Hi.
LECLAIR: I'm Dave.
KAYE: LeClair said some in Massena worry heavy hydro electricity used by the data center could deter other companies with big energy needs, ones that would hire more workers, from considering their town.
LECLAIR: There are people out there that think that they're taking this natural resource and going to end up spoiling it for other opportunities.
KAYE: Coinmint did not receive government incentives to renovate in Massena, but elsewhere, governments have lured firms, including Google and Facebook, with millions of dollars in subsidies hoping to preserve property tax revenue and create data center jobs, despite the fact these operations often do not require many workers. In town at the Massena Arena, both hope and doubt are palpable. People like Ronald Aldous fear a future without the sort of full-time labor-intensive job opportunities that were here in the past.
RONALD ALDOUS: We need something in the area that pay more than minimum wage because some of these people working minimum wage are working two or three jobs with no benefits. We worry about our grandchildren.
KAYE: Ultimately, people wonder whether any industry will create the sorts of jobs needed to support youth hockey players and other kids here when they're grown. For NPR News, I'm Kate Kaye in Massena, N.Y.
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