APEX is a Duluth, Minnesota based private sector led business development engine for northeast Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin. APEX investor-members represent many of the most influential companies in the region. APEX promotes sustainable economic growth through attraction, retention and expansion of businesses and industries that align with the region’s competitive advantages. The organization invests significant human and financial resources to build sophisticated strategies and business cases to cost-justify investment within the region. Duluth, Minnesota is the world’s largest inland port, located on the edge of Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes. Duluth forms a metropolitan area with Superior, Wisconsin, referred to as the Twin Ports. The Duluth/Superior Metropolitan Statistical Area population approached 285,000 according to the 2018 Census.
In 2005, APEX and its economic development partner and investor, Minnesota Power, a division of ALLETE, had identified data centers as an emerging market. Information technology and data storage needs are a challenge for any business, particularly for compliance-driven corporations, healthcare and educational institutions. In fact, they represent realms of significant growth potential for the data center industry. It appeared to be a viable attraction strategy for the regional economic development partners to consider and validate.
In regions the size of the Twin Ports, often referred to as Tier II communities, companies are faced with the decision to invest considerable capital resources in privately owned data centers that are inadequate for compliance needs and very costly. Others choose to outsource colocation needs to other parts of the state or country.
With insight provided from APEX investor-members, Essentia Health and SISU Medical Solutions, APEX learned that they had potential anchor tenants for a data center expansion. Headquartered in Duluth, Essentia Health, a Midwest integrated healthcare provider serving 74 locations over a five state area, was in dire need of a facility solution for the organization’s IT operation. SISU Medical Solutions, a healthcare IT services provider, was also evaluating a solution that accommodated for growth, resiliency and flexibility. Both organizations were independently in the midst of evaluating whether to invest significant internal capital resources or work with a provider of colocation services. Inquiries made to other APEX investor-members and employers in the Twin Ports region uncovered several additional entities that would be interested in colocating within a data center facility as well.
In addition to having potential customers, the Twin Ports area had several unique regional features that were of interest and value to the data center industry. These features included:
Multi-tenant, carrier neutral data centers are powerful economic engines in rural communities. While data centers do not offer large employment figures on their own, with the salary and benefits package generally averaging at least $65,000, they are highly desirable in Tier II communities. In addition to generating spin-off employment in construction, operations and maintenance, they are also often catalysts for additional telecommunication investment.
The APEX staff and regional economic development partners set forward an aggressive, sophisticated strategy to recruit a colocation data center to the region. APEX invested considerable financial and human capital to research and understand the industry players, motivators and drivers.
“Data centers create an incredibly valuable infrastructure that draws other businesses that have business continuity and disaster recovery requirements”
“Involta’s investment revitalized an existing facility, constructed a world-class facility, added high-paying job opportunities and enhanced our community’s network connectivity and technology infrastructure.”
This project was a great example of private sector investment in Duluth. Involta’s investment revitalized an existing facility, constructed a world–class facility, added high–paying job opportunities and enhanced our community’s network connectivity and technology infrastructure,
Involta, headquartered in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, fit the criteria that APEX was looking for in a data center operator. Involta and APEX began a relationship in December of 2009. The company had a strong balance sheet, experienced management team and was strategically focused on expansion to mid-sized, Tier II markets like the Twin Ports.
APEX, and the regional economic development partners, leveraged their experience with the data center industry and their knowledge of the local market to align Involta with the potential tenants and to garner the financial and technical resources to cost-justify the company’s investment in Duluth. APEX worked simultaneously to educate the public sector on the value of having a data center in the community. While Involta would employ a modest number of people, the company planned to invest considerable capital in terms of data center and telecommunication infrastructure. Another advantage to Duluth’s location was proximity to the Twin Cities Metropolitan market. Involta knew the value a community the size of Duluth could offer potential customers.
“There are several data centers in the Twin Cities, but a Duluth location offered cost-effective power, real estate and human resources as compared to a major metro area. Those considerations are often part of any organizational decision regarding colocation solutions,” commented Bruce Lehrman, CEO of Involta.
After considerable due diligence on both APEX and Involta’s part, Involta announced in June 2011 the official decision to build and operate two multi-tenant colocation facilities in Duluth. The company not only invested in a new concurrently maintainable and highly secure facility, but also partnered with a client to redevelop an existing building as a second location. By September 2012 both of the facilities were operational. The data centers house mission critical computer systems and related infrastructure for healthcare organizations, compliance-driven businesses, government agencies and educational institutions.
Involta CEO Bruce Lehrman expressed great appreciation for the support shown by APEX and its investor members. “Without the assistance of APEX, St. Louis County and the City of Duluth, it is unlikely this project would have made it out of the planning stage,” stated Lehrman.
Lehrman also praised the efforts of Minnesota Power, a division of ALLETE, for their project assistance. “They stepped up with the community expertise, a desirable site location and the reliable power strategy we needed to locate a data center in Duluth,” said Lehrman.