In the wake of Minnesota’s tragic bridge collapse, the state of U.S. infrastructure is the new topic of national conversation. It’s time to take a look at the infrastructure questions you need to ask when evaluating a location.
By Pearl Gabel
Imagine that a utility company has embarked on a major relocation project—building a corporate headquarters in a Midwestern city. The area is perfect, incentives are in place, the staff is excited, and the pristine grassland is easy to build on. All of a sudden, the company hits a snag: prairie dogs.
“”We found there was an entire ‘doggie city’ living under there,”” says Jan Dickinson.
Years ago, Dickinson, the founder of Dickinson Consulting in Portland, OR, was hired to help a certain company with its relocation. The prairie dogs—small, burrowing rodents—are known to live in large colonies that can span hundreds of acres underground through a complex system of tunnels and chambers. The species is a “”keystone species,”” crucial to the environment and controversial if exterminated. As opposed to exterminating the colony, the company agreed to capture and relocate the animals.
“”A professional ‘critter-gitter’ was engaged,”” says Dickinson. “”It showed that our new corporate citizen was the one who cared about everyone living there.””
Scott Harvey, the founder of Enviro-Zone, a prairie dog relocation service in Colorado, is often hired by similar companies. “”We seem to have an influx of new offices coming up where prairie dogs are,”” says Harvey. “”I just received a call to relocate 68-acres of prairie dogs for a corporation. It’s a pretty common problem.””
Animals burrowing below a proposed site is one of the many infrastructure issues that a company can face. Many projects can get curtailed, delayed, or even terminated because of simple infrastructure issues.
The tragic collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minnesota in August brought to light the nation’s need to examine its public infrastructure more closely. Experts debated how bridges and roads can be built better and maintained to withstand factors like weather and capacity—both present and future capacity. Choosing and building private infrastructure is an equally important—and sometimes overlooked—due diligence obligation of a company.
When selecting your next site, location, price, and incentives should not be the only considerations. The physical infrastructure of a site—from the surrounding area resources to below-ground—is an integral part of choosing any facility. (We are purposely defining “”infrastructure”” broadly, spanning physical infrastructure to virtual infrastructure, including data and telecommunications, environmental, and community considerations.)
Business Facilities brings you, via our checklist on page 13, crucial questions to ask when choosing your next facility or site. Consider using this checklist for every site that your company evaluates. We’ve compiled a thorough list, with the help of our team of experts, that will help you with any type of site evaluation—from industrial manufacturing to office space to data center.
Corporate citizenship—the contribution that a company makes to society and the environment through its business practices—begins with the physical effect that a facility has locally. Each facility has a unique relationship to the community that it inhabits, which can affect the company’s business goals, reputation, and success. One obvious example:
“”You do not want to build an industrial project on a site near a school,”” says Dennis Mingyar, economic development director of Buckeye Power in Ohio.
Ask yourself, is there a possibility that the project will affect the living conditions of people nearby? How will the company be viewed by local residents? Once the community has been assessed, you will be able to determine key infrastructure points. That means discovering which infrastructure is in place, and which infrastructure needs to be planned, scheduled, and funded. Consider your company’s projected growth, and determine whether the local infrastructure can meet that growth, and whether the costs are reasonable.
Any type of facility requires reliable access to energy. When considering utility lines on a site, you need to consider more than actual line size.
“”You need to ask how much excess capacity is available. This is true of both gas and electrical,”” says Mingyar.
Access to install power line towers, submarine cables, or if needed, electric power and distribution lines, is crucial if you plan to expand your facility in the future.
Once you know who the energy and gas service providers are, it may also be worthwhile to find out their performance over the past few years. For example, how many utility outages have there been in the service area and how has the provider performed during natural disasters? If there is provider choice, which provider has the most competitive rate? It may even be useful to canvas other users in the service area to get their opinions of this energy provider.
Often, a rate code is assigned during the construction of a new property, and that rate may be chosen during the construction process by a site foreman. According to Christian Blattenberger, the manager of procurement for electric, natural gas, and renewable energy for Cadence Network, the rate code that is needed once the property is operating may be different than what is needed during the construction phase. Over the years, being on the incorrect rate can cost you a substantial amount of money. The ability of an energy provider to grow with your infrastructure is another element to successful planning. Dual providers or an on-site generator is an option for some telecommunications and data companies.
“”What I like to do is get at least two power sources,”” says Michael Hickey, founder of Hickey and Associates, a national corporate site selection consulting firm. “”Backup power is a key component to any facility, especially to data centers, which have major power needs.””
In the same way that your company chooses an energy provider, data and telecommunications pro-viders should also be compared. The provider’s reliability, cost-competitiveness, technology, and ability to grow with your business are the key factors affecting a business that relies on this component of infrastructure.
Determine whether this particular site and facility can handle the level of telecommunication and Internet connection that your company requires. This includes not only bandwidth and network capacity, but computer room environments, such as increased heat and power requirements associated with running blade servers and other types of technology. A significant limiting factor for a data center’s growth is power capacity, network bandwidth, and cooling capacity.
The data center is a particularly important facility for financial and healthcare institutions, as well as many other businesses. When siting a critical data center, experts routinely emphasize the importance of a stable weather environment.
IN CASE OF EMERGENCY
Security is a matter of emergency response, safety, prevention, and preparedness for natural disaster. The response time of emergency responders in the area and their ability to access your facility are important to all businesses, especially with regard to a company’s manufacturing and industrial facilities. How soon can a fire engine arrive? Is there more than one entrance and exit to the site? How soon can a utility company make on-site repairs? Developing a relationship with local emergency responders, and familiarizing these teams with your facility, is recommended.
For small and medium-sized business, knowing your employees is extremely important, according to Jan Dickinson. “”I always recommend 24-hour security on hand at every facility,”” says Dickinson. “”I recommend a sign-in and sign-out system, and a security team in a central location able to view all doors and the parking lot.””
Determine the risk of flooding, earthquakes, and hurricanes in the area, and investigate whether the facility (or proposed facility) is equipped to withstand these natural disasters. For instance, companies building in parts of Nebraska known for frequent tornadoes are encouraged to have (or build) a berm along the walls of the building, planted with grass, so that the tornado can pass over the building without affecting it. For facilities in higher earthquake zones, base-isolation techniques can minimize risk.
Roads, Transportation, and Mass Transit
Since the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minnesota, companies have been thinking not just of their infrastructure’s cost, but also its safety and reliability. The Bureau of Transportation has state-by-state statistics on public infrastructure, online at www.bts.gov.
Still, your company’s concern for transportation infrastructure should mostly focus on issue of access and capacity. Identifying the transportation needs of your facility is the first step in assessing transportation infrastructure. This includes the ability to smoothly import and expert goods to and from the facility, and also the ability of your employees and clients to comfortably commute.
Dickinson recalls the example of a mail order company whose distribution center was situated in a small town adjoining a big city. According to Dickinson, its biggest problem was attracting workers—the main highway was good for shipping packages, but it was a stressful and crowded commute.
Whether your facility is industrial, commercial office space, or laboratory space, there is going to be a need for a steady, reliable transportation and access. Ask yourself, is the site close enough to an airport with sufficient flight options? Is it easy to reach major roads and highways? Is there access to major shipping lanes, if needed? If you need short-line rail access, is it allowed to come into the plant? Will your employees have a difficult time getting to and from work?
Spotting unusual features of the general land (i.e. sinking sand spots) can be key to preventing future problems. The site should also be as far away from a flood plain if possible (at least 100 feet above the maximum protected flood elevation level).
Hopefully, the site that you have selected is not within a rainforest, or other ecologically valuable habitat. Even if it’s not, you should find out if there are any endangered species in the area. Consult with local groups, as well as your contractor, to determine how the project will affect the environment.
“”You want to make sure that you know what the topography of the land is,”” says Michael Hickey. “”You want to know where the land is relative to a wetland, and that there are no other environmental issues.””
When choosing an already established facility, find out whether air pollutants and wastes emitted meet local standards. Are adequate measures being taken to assure no contamination of soil and groundwater? Will local providers be able to provide enough water to your facility, and what are your treatment options? Ensure that the project will not adversely affect the living conditions of people living nearby.
Every facility that a company runs is a flagship for that company. Being positively viewed locally is crucial to its success—whether that includes publicizing your dedication to the environment (building green or becoming LEED-certified), ensuring that the facility will not affect local ecology, or relocating prairie dogs as opposed to terminating them.
No company can be successful without a successful workforce, which is why the educational, worker training, and labor supply pipeline infrastructure of an area is so important. Determine whether there are enough parks and cultural programs, for instance. Familiarizing yourself with local wages, labor policies, and regulations is as important as investigating the workforce availability.
Planning for the Future
It is important to allow room for growth in your next location. If there are restrictions limiting the height or the footprint of your building, make sure that you can live with that for a long time. These limitations may have been established by public or private zoning acts. Cities will often have a planning and building codes or a similar department to consult.
What are the growth plans for the facility? The local infrastructure may meet your needs today, but will it work tomorrow?