Microsoft will invest more than $1 billion to build a trio of data center campuses in Catawba County in North Carolina, the company said this week. Microsoft will join Google, Apple and Facebook in deploying data centers in Western North Carolina, which has an active cloud cluster west of Charlotte.
The new data centers will be on large properties in Conover, Hickory and Maiden and will create at least 50 new jobs. The site in Maiden will be just across the highway from the Apple "iDataCenter" campus, which also features an enormous solar array.
The project continues Microsoft's expansion of its East Coast infrastructure. The company plans several new campuses in the Atlanta market, an approach that suggests a future Azure cloud region with multiple availability zones. The use of three sites in North Carolina across 670 acres of land also suggests a multi-zone cloud region.
“We are proud to work with Catawba County, the EDC, and local cities to bring exciting development projects to the area,” said Paul Englis, Microsoft Director of Community Engagement. “Today's announcement is just the start of our mutual partnership and Microsoft's long-term commitment to the local community.”
Microsoft will guarantee a minimum investment of $1 billion in Catawba County in return for an incentive package that includes performance-based tax breaks equal to 50% of real property tax and 85% personal property tax over 10 years.
“Today’s Microsoft project announcement is a direct result of the Catawba County Economic Development Corporation’s long-time, multi-jurisdictional plan to drive technology development in Catawba County,” said Dr. Garrett Hinshaw, Catawba County EDC board chair and president of Catawba Valley Community College. “We are pleased Microsoft has become part of the cadre of companies that have chosen to grow their technology operations here, and we remain committed to being an exceptional partner for the technology sector in the future.”
A History of Data Center Development
Catawba County is about an hour's drive west of Charlotte, and was an early beneficiary of the Internet economy in the 1990s, when fiber optic cabling companies Corning and Commscope became the county's largest employers. The region was once a thriving area for textile mills, which closed or moved elsewhere, but left behind sites with industrial-strength power and water infrastructure that are ideal for data center development.
The Microsoft team is familiar with the area from a site selection process in 2010 that triggered heated competition between economic development teams in Virginia and North Carolina. Microsoft was eyeing a location in Cleveland County, N.C. but opted to build a data center in Boydton, Va., just across the border between the two states. That site has become one of the world's largest cloud campuses.
That was an era when North Carolina often had the upper hand in the battle for huge data center projects, following a string of successes:
- In 2007 Google selected Lenoir, North Carolina in Caldwell County as the location for one of its first huge server farms.
- In 2009 Apple made headlines by investing $1 billion in its first iDataCenter in Maiden in Catawba County.
- In 2010 Facebook announced a new data center campus in Forest City in Rutherford County.
In 2010, Virginia adopted targeted tax incentives for data centers, which have been a key factor in the enormous growth of the data center cluster in Northern Virginia, including Data Center Alley in Ashburn.
Data Center Growth is Back for NC
The Facebook in 2010 deal was the last large new data center campus to come to Western North Carolina. All three hyperscale players in the region have added additional capacity, with Google adding a second facility in Lenoir and Facebook building three facilities in Forest City, with the most recent in 2015.
Apple bought additional land in Maiden in 2017 but has moved slowly on its expansion. In 2019 it secured approvals for future development, and in June 2022 it filed permits for a 240,000 square foot data center.
While the campus expansions in the region have been meaningful, these sites remain smaller than the cloud campuses these companies are building in other markets, which can include between 5 and 9 data center buildings.
In 2021 Microsoft bought an additional 900 acres of land in Boydton, where it already operated more than 1 million square feet of data centers. The site benefits from a location due West of the cable landing station in Virginia Beach, where the MAREA subsea cable brings massive amounts of data from Europe.
Catawba County is about 200 miles from the Microsoft Boydton campus, and about 250 miles north of Atlanta, suggesting Microsoft is placing its campuses to provide proximity and latency for users across the Southeast as it builds out its Azure cloud infrastructure. Here are the details on the Catawba County sites:
- The Conover site will be located on approximately 219 acres north of Conover on NC Hwy 16. This location includes the multi-jurisdictional NCDataCampus site, which has long been planned as a potential location for multiple technology facilities.
- The Hickory sites will be located on approximately 160 acres west of US 321 adjacent to Hickory Lincolnton Hwy. and on approximately 16 acres on Tate Blvd.
- The Maiden site will be located on approximately 292 acres north of W. Maiden Rd. and west of Zeb Haynes Rd.