Consultant studying ways for Columbia to attract high-tech companies

Sunday, September 9, 2007 | 4:40 p.m. CDT; updated 6:13 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Columbia might be ranked among the nation’s top cities, but attracting high-tech companies to the area is still no easy feat.

The local business community, however, has help from a consultant hired by Regional Economic Development Inc. to find ways that Columbia can attract a company to build a data center here.

Data centers are secure warehouse facilities that house electronic equipment used for data storage and computer networking. They employ staff composed primarily of information technology workers. Data centers are used not only by high-tech companies but also in other industries, to manage information and essential computer network equipment. They made national headlines in June 2006 when the New York Times reported Google’s construction of a large data center facility along the Columbia River in Oregon.

“We’re seeing a number of data centers announced in locations in other states,” said REDI President Bernie Andrews. “With the university in Columbia and all the computer science talent we have here, we think it’d be a good fit.”

Andrews told the Columbia City Council on Monday that REDI had hired a consultant with Angelou Economics of Austin, Texas, in May to evaluate the Columbia area in terms of its potential to attract a data center. REDI in June identified two undeveloped sites and gave the consultant information on their utility characteristics and proximity to roads and existing development. Andrews would not say where those properties are.

Other clients of Angelou Economics include Oklahoma City and Lincoln, Neb., as well as companies such as Intel, Oracle and Dell Computer, according to its Web site. Andrews described the company’s clients as “businesses that are looking to expand their data center operations.”

Andrews said REDI has been approached in the past by agencies seeking sites for tech companies, but none has expressed an interest. That’s why it decided to hire Angelou.

High-tech jobs in Columbia and Boone County make up only a small portion of the workforce, despite the presence of MU and the research it spawns. But it is the No. 1 strategic goal of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce to increase “high-tech, high-paying” jobs in the area, according to its Web site.

The goal is to “try to make Columbia a more appealing place” for these and other kinds of businesses that employ a highly skilled staff, chamber President Don Laird said, adding it was “a good idea” for REDI to hire Angelou.

A REDI economic development report to the City Council, prepared with the consultant’s input, said the combination of a skilled workforce and the presence of a large research university are important criteria for attracting a high-tech firm. Good quality of life — with low crime, strong public schools and affordable housing — is also important.

REDI’s report also included results from a 2006 survey by Area Development Magazine suggesting that high-tech companies look for low labor costs, highway accessibility, favorable corporate tax rates and state and local tax incentives.

Andrews said he hopes the consultant will help REDI learn how Columbia rates on those characteristics and how it can be more competitive.

The consultant’s final report will be presented to REDI, the chamber of commerce, and possibly the City Council on Oct. 11, said Andrews.

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