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Google Brings Results to Lenoir 

By Ben Brown, NCLM Advocacy Communication Associate

Try a Google search for "Lenoir, North Carolina." Just type it in, see what comes up.

No surprise, you’ll get the small city’s Wikipedia entry, its website for local government, some census data, too. Scroll a bit further, though, and you’ll find info on a pretty notable local tenant: Google, itself.

What’s more, the massive data facility Google operates in Lenoir, at the foothills of North Carolina, might have played a role in how those search results reached your computer screen.

Quite cool – but to the city’s residents and those of greater Caldwell County, the recruitment of Google has played into results far more meaningful. And they’re still rippling.

The tech giant’s colossal North Carolina server complex, which fired up in 2008 on Lynhaven Street in the city of about 18,000 people, represents a $1.2 billion long-term company investment and more than 250 jobs to keep Google products – from Gmail to YouTube to Google Maps to the ever popular search engine – running around the clock.

It’s also helping to power Lenoir.

The city, after lean times, is alive. The job market is cruising. New industry is on scene. The millennial population is up. There’s something to do every night.

And corporate representatives are flying in to see what it’s all about.

"By Google coming, we’ve had a number of industries that have looked 

at us again and said, ‘Wow,’" said Joe Gibbons, Lenoir’s mayor.

Google has directly aided those efforts. When local economic development officials hold talks with new industrial prospects, it’s not unusual to find a Google representative on Lenoir’s side of the table communicating what the locale has to offer. The company has also awarded the area millions of dollars in grants for science education and Internet access, among other things. In 2009, Google paid for infrastructure to give Lenoir a free WiFi network.

It’s all been huge for the city. But the story of Google’s arrival is also the story of a community willing to work hard for its gains.

To understand that piece of it, consider the history of Lenoir, whose economy once drew on another consumer product in high demand: furniture.

"We were the furniture capital of the South for many, many years," said Gibbons, a native whose father, too, served as mayor. "Our world was centered on the furniture industry."

A brief history on the City of Lenoir’s website traces local furniture heritage back to 1889 with the establishment of Lenoir Furniture Company, seating what would become an industry that generated thousands of jobs in western North Carolina. "Fine-crafted furniture made in Lenoir graced homes in over thirty different countries in the world," says the narrative. "The Southern Furniture market brought buyers from all over the United States to Lenoir to get ‘sneak’ previews of the furniture lines that would be on the market. Furniture executives would host market buyers in their homes and lavish parties made Lenoir’s brand of Southern hospitality famous."

Elements of the furniture capital remain; some local companies are rocking in areas like upholstery, and the greater metropolitan statistical area is charting strong furniture-manufacturing growth, according to the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission (CCEDC). But the industry frayed badly as one century came to a close and another began, and manufacturing shifted to Asia and elsewhere. Furniture companies relocated. Thousands and thousands of local jobs disappeared.

It was devastating, Gibbons said. "So, we had to begin retooling ourselves."

Partnerships developed to align the workforce with other employers’ needs. At Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute (CCC&TI), just a few miles from town, the last decade or so has seen moments of all-time-high enrollment and the establishment of job-specific programs to improve resumes that locals would send to, for instance, Duke Energy.

The school also teamed with CCEDC for a semi-annual job fair to connect hopefuls with hirers. Those events have drawn thousands of participants, said CCC&TI spokesman Edward Terry.

"The effort includes pre-event training for job seekers to assist with resumes, interviewing and soft skills," Terry noted.

While the workforce was sharpening, Lenoir had serious assets to flex – the kind that led Google, one of the world’s largest public companies and recognizable names, to knock at the door. 

To Google, it was huge that Lenoir had a freed-up energy grid, per all those furniture company departures. Clearly, the facility Google had in mind would need tremendous power. Another need: water, vital for cooling data centers. As it happened, Lenoir was the water supplier for most of Caldwell County. Mild summers? That, too. Developable land? Plenty available. Workforce? Standing ready.

After economic incentives that among other things reduced Google’s tax liability, the company in 2007 announced its investment in Lenoir for a project that would, at peak times, host roughly 1,000 construction and jobsite workers who would file into area hotels, restaurants and shops, boosting sales and occupancy tax revenues.

Google also partnered with CCC&TI to create an information technology training academy, said Terry.

The search giant hired maintenance workers, systems administrators, technicians and more – in large part from the job-ready community – while contracting out services like security and grounds keeping. It calls its employees "Googlers."

Even with a capped forgiveness on taxes to the city, Google remains Lenoir’s largest taxpayer by far and continues to invest independently in community-building.

According to a fact sheet from the company, Google has given more than $4 million in grants to North Carolina schools and nonprofits, including Lenoir Soup Kitchen Inc., Caldwell County Schools’ Patterson Science Center and the Lenoir-based Caldwell Green Commission, which promotes awareness of sustainable technologies.

In September 2015, Google funds went into the creation of a computer lab at the Martin Luther King Center of Lenoir, where Googlers from the data center have conducted "computer science coding camps" for King Center students.

Officials with Lenoir and Google also proudly note the North Carolina Gravity Games. It’s a modern soapbox derby, held each spring in partnership with Appalachian State University, in which young participants apply science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM education – to their race cars’ construction. The games have zipped through downtown Lenoir since 2011.

And then there’s the magnet effect – Google’s presence catching outside attention as Lenoir worked to polish its workforce and as EDC pushed to diversify its corporate portfolio.

These days, Google’s is not the only data center in town. In 2013, international tech company CentriLogic acquired a Lenoir facility for a data center and has invested millions of dollars in expansions there since. "The region is often referred to as the ‘NC Data Center Corridor’ as a result of many companies constructing facilities in the area given the prevalence of affordable land, low-cost and reliable power sources, and a low risk of natural disaster," CentriLogic said in a 2015 release about its expansions. (Facebook and Apple data centers aren’t far away.)

Data isn’t the only sector in town, either. In 2012, following the diversification effort, pet food company Carolina Prime Pet settled into one of the large, vacated manufacturing facilities that could match its scaling needs. Later that year, major wood products manufacturer Woodgrain Millwork of Idaho added a Lenoir facility, crediting the area’s skilled workforce in a news release. The workforce was cited again the following year when pharmaceuticals manufacturer Exela Pharma Sciences announced an $8.5 million expansion in Lenoir. In 2014, Bakers Waste Equipment, maker of steel containers and compactors, picked Lenoir, updating an expansive former furniture plant to house its operations.

"Those kinds of stories could go on," said Gibbons.

The successes have reined in an unemployment rate that at its height in 2010 hit a grim 17 percent for Caldwell County (as compared to the state’s 11 percent). At the time of this writing, the rate was around 6 percent.

Economists may nod to improved economic conditions far and wide, but Google’s recruitment and the independent push for local betterment was major reason for Lenoir’s recovery, area officials agree.

"We continue to recruit – and yes Google is important to us," said EDC Executive Director Deborah Murray. "But I would say that they have helped us demonstrate a capacity that you probably wouldn’t think a sleepy little community in the foothills would have."

It might come up in a Google search, though.