In 2012, Steve Duke’s garage in Prineville was filled with cardboard boxes. He and his family had reluctantly begun packing up toys, books and kitchen appliances for an imminent move to Texas.
Duke lost his job when his employer, Les Schwab Tires, moved its headquarters from Prineville to Bend. He spent the next year looking for work.
“It was horrible,” Duke said. “There were no jobs in Central Oregon at that time.”
But just before he was about to uproot his life and move across the country, a friend encouraged Duke to apply for a job at Facebook. He was hired soon after. Now Duke schedules all of the electrical and mechanical maintenance for Facebook facilities in Prineville.
“Having [an] opportunity to stay here meant everything,” Duke said. “I fully plan to retire in Central Oregon.”
His community is one of many Northwest timber towns that struggled to reinvent themselves after the timber booms of the 1970s and ‘80s. Prineville was once home to at least five lumber mills, as well as the headquarters of Les Schwab.
A few years ago, the community welcomed an unexpected new industry: data centers. Now, the economy in Crook County is as much about the tech industry as natural resources.
The arrival of Facebook and Apple in Prineville created about 300 new permanent jobs. But the new tech economy in this old Western town has also put the squeeze on other resources. The region faces one of the most severe housing shortages in the state. Escalating rents make it hard for low-income residents to find or keep housing. And now an unexpected electricity shortfall in Crook County could hurt efforts to attract even more new industry.
Timber, Tires, And Now Technology
The recession hit Prineville especially hard. Unemployment rose to about 20 percent, the highest in the state, and residents started slipping away to other communities.
Mayor Betty Roppe said that before 2008, the city’s population topped 10,000, but that dropped dramatically during the recession.
“We decided we needed to be diverse,” Roppe said. “What Prineville was is Les Schwab Tires, a lot of mills, a lot of blue-collar workers.”
Back then, when Roppe and other community leaders were exploring economic options, data centers were not on their radar.
“But once we did some research we did find we saw the potential benefits,” she said. “We want to keep it a healthy place for them to operate.”
Facebook broke ground on its first Prineville data center in 2010, followed by Apple in 2012. Once both companies finish new construction that’s currently underway Prineville will have a total of six data centers.
Apple is less open about its operations and personnel than Facebook, which regularly gives tours of its facilities to elected officials and media. Data centers sometimes have a reputation for using a lot of water and electricity, but Facebook’s site manager Todd Flack likes to show people the extensive energy efficiency measures the company has in place.
Facebook’s 150 jobs in Prineville are far from equaling one of the old lumber mills, but the positions it does offer are diverse, Flack said.
“Everything from server repair to electricians to heating and cooling specialists, landscape specialists, culinary specialists, security specialists,” he said. The company tries to hire locally when possible, and through an agreement with the city, its average wages are 150 percent of the usual pay in Crook County.
“And of course they’ve built a lot of buildings in our community,” Roppe said. “That brings jobs through the construction of those buildings. Usually, they have about 400 people working on each one. It’s been a good business to bring to our community.”
Construction Boom Equals A Housing Crunch
All those construction jobs mean that Prineville’s restaurants are booming.
“When you go out to eat on a Tuesday night, I’ve actually shown up and had to wait,” said Crook County Judge Seth Crawford. “If you look at other rural communities across the state, they sure don’t have that problem.”
The lines at the grocery stores and the 10-car traffic jams sometimes seen downtown are part of that boom. But so is a dramatic housing shortage.
“I’m not opposed to them being here, but it’s hard on the local people who don’t make that much money,” said Mary Sanislo, who works in one of Prineville’s last lumber mills.
From 2011 to 2016, rents rose more than 45 percent in Prineville — that’s the second highest rate of increase of any city in the nation, according to a LendingTree study. Home prices have also been on the rise. That’s good news if you’re a homeowner in Prineville. But it’s tough for renters like Sanislo’s daughter, a single mom who she says was recently given 30 days to move out when her landlord decided to sell.
“Try to find something in a month,” Sanislo said. “There’s no way. She’s having to move in with a friend in Redmond so that she’s got a place to live. With all four of her kids.”
Vacancy rates are near zero, so finding a new rental can be an impossible challenge in Prineville. City and county leaders are well aware of the housing and crunch and are working with nonprofit and other groups on some emergency housing solutions, such as fast tracking approval of new RV sites.
Gridlock On The Electricity Grid
Although Roppe would love to see more data centers come to Prineville, the city is also working to bring new manufacturing and other jobs to the area. But a recently-realized electricity crunch could make recruiting new companies a challenge.
An electricity-intensive manufacturing company was recently exploring opening up a facility in Crook County. Roppe didn’t know the identity of the company, but representatives promised that it could bring more than 300 jobs. It turned out that the company needed more energy than the area could support.
“It put us in a little bit of an embarassing spot,” Roppe said. “We thought we had it.”
City officials assumed that the electricity the Bonneville Power Administration had indicated was available back in 2012 would still be at the ready for new development. But in the years since, BPA made changes to the grid system, and the area can no longer support that additional power demand. The utility retired certain transmission equipment, and plans for certain upgrades to the grid were modified, unexpectedly limiting Prineville’s energy capacity.
That’s another side effect of the data centers, which are the largest electricity consumers in the county despite all of their energy efficiency measures. In 2015, the Facebook data centers consumed 284,ooo MWh, about enough electricity to power 26,000 homes.
The shortage may mean that the owners of the manufacturing facility decide to build elsewhere, although Roppe said Prineville is still on the company’s list.
More generally, the complications with the electricity grid were a wake-up call for this little city that’s working hard to grow and diversify. Roppe said it’s something the city will be in better communication with BPA from now on.
“We’re keeping much closer watch on it now than we did before,” she said. “We’re OK, but we’re definitely being proactive about making sure we have enough for what we need in the future.”