The argument of jobs versus the environment continues to play itself out in Newark after another hearing on The Data Centers. Delaware Business Daily Editor, Doug Rainey attended the recent meeting and offers his thoughts.
Here is Doug Rainey’s commentary:
We saw the continuation of Newark’s version of the Ground Hog Day movie earlier in the week.
A call to action by opponents of The Data Centers project led to Council Chambers being filled to overflowing as speaker after speaker came to the podium. This is not a huge achievement as the meeting room seats less than 100.
The Data Centers would be located on a portion of the University of Delaware STAR Campus, the former Chrysler site.
Most were on hand to voice their displeasure with the project. A few backers also offered their views to the mostly polite crowd. Others were upset with the lack of parking and fears their cars would be towed. City officials said they will look at parking options.
Council members had heard it all before as they listened patiently, only commenting if someone shouted out from the audience. The exercise, reminiscent of the movie where the lead character relives the same day over and over, was getting old.
Clearly, opponents, many from neighborhoods adjacent to the proposed data site, are feeling the pressure. They are beginning to see pushback from labor, some residents and members of the business community over the need for the hundreds of jobs that could be created by the $1.1 billion project that would be built in phases.
Gov. Jack Markell has waded into the discussion, noting that a permitting process is in place to deal with concerns about the project, but adding that the process does not include a referendum on every proposed development. Other politicians have been more timid, although they have begun to back away from repeating some of the more outrageous claims of opponents.
Speakers mostly ignored the data portion of the project that would deal with the avalanche of online information that is now being stored on the “cloud.” That could be a game-changer if it attracted allied businesses.
Instead, the focus was on a natural gas-powered power plant that would be used to power the data complex with no “downtime.” An estimated 20 percent of that power could be fed into the grid.
That led to Occupy Wall Street-style rhetoric on greedy, corrupt corporations and educational institutions. One speaker introduced a bit of political theater with a recording device that according to his claim mirrored the noise that would come from the power plant. The noise argument has been widely discredited, but persists.
Residents also complained that New Jersey union members were canvassing their neighborhoods and leaving door hangers. They felt the out-of-towers were bolstering their argument that the project would do little do benefit the city. Never mind, the millions of dollars that would pour in from property taxes and building permits.
Legitimate concerns were aired about the effect of the project on the city electric utility, but those issues are expected to be ironed out should the project go forward.
While the usual arguments of a looming environmental catastrophe were common, others focused on the issue of jobs at the STAR site that at various times employed thousands of Chrysler workers.
More than one speaker claimed the Newark economy is in decent condition with an unemployment rate that is below the state average. Delaware Department of Labor reports bear that out. At the same time, the jobless rate may be double the figure reported during boom periods when Avon, MBNA and Chrysler were running flat out.
Another presenter sliced and diced figures from The Data Centers on the average paycheck from those working at the complex and came up with a figure of $43,000. He scoffed at that amount of money, saying it would do little to help the economy. That would come as news to those who work in retail and other lower paying areas.
The vast buffet table of arguments against the project may also be an act of desperation. It is not at all clear that residents have any hope of halting the project should investors and the University of Delaware decide it should go forward. After all, the site once housed an auto plant.
Their one shred of hope is that developers simply grow tired and simply take the development elsewhere. Contrary to the views of some speakers, another Delaware site is not in the cards.
The STAR campus has the infrastructure and location needed for this ground-breaking project. No other site measures up.
Worse yet, letting this project slip away could doom prospects for blue collar jobs in northern Delaware for decades to come. Economic development officials from around the region would pin that obituary to their bulletin boards for further inspiration.
Meanwhile, it is time to let the Newark City Council go about its business and let its unpaid members get some rest. Enough has been said and written until more definitive plans are unveiled.