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The average person can probably describe the benefits of a robust manufacturing industry in the United States: It creates good middle-class jobs, develops quality products and reduces supply chain delays and risks.

In fact, a Brookings Institution survey found that 58% of Americans see the manufacturing industry as very important to the U.S. economy. Unfortunately, despite its importance, the industry has faced numerous challenges recently. But a new industry is helping support a “manufacturing renaissance” here at home, and particularly across Virginia: data centers.

If you’ve ever driven past a data center, you know they are large, robust facilities. They must be able to withstand the elements and maintain continuous uptime for the many critical operations they support – including serving as the backbone for the increasingly digital lifestyle that Americans have come to appreciate.

To keep things running, the buildings that house data centers are built from the ground up with strength and reliability in mind; many are structurally reinforced with impressive amounts of steel.

My company, SteelFab, is the nation’s largest structural steel fabricator, with 13 plants stretching from the Southeast to the Pacific Northwest. SteelFab buys raw steel I-beams from mills and turns them into fabricated steel, which looks something like an erector set, over a period of three to five months as a data center is first built.

We do this by employing production workers in a variety of quality middle-class jobs – including welders, fitters, machine operators and CAD technicians. We’ve worked on about 170 data center projects nationwide, including more than 50 in Virginia for companies like STACK, Vantage and CloudHQ. Many of these projects have been in Loudoun and Prince William counties.

In the past three years, our local work equates to about 75,000 tons of steel and 12,000 tons of metal decking – nearly all of which is produced right here in Virginia.

The significant investment in data centers has benefits beyond Northern Virginia. The industry as a whole has supported a statewide ecosystem of manufacturing jobs that continues to flourish.

SteelFab purchases most of its raw steel from a plant in Petersburg. A good portion of our metal decking comes from another company in Salem. We have a plant in Emporia, in Southside Virginia, where we fabricate much of our material.

In the past three years, we’ve devoted about $16 million in capital investments to our Emporia facility by hiring 50-60 new workers, purchasing equipment and expanding our operations. This expansion would not have happened without the data center industry.

As our industry grows, we understand the importance of doing so sustainably. About 95% of structural steel in the United States is recycled from used cars, railroad ties, washing machines and other items that have been melted down and repurposed into new structural shapes.

While steel production is energy-intensive, producers are implementing more renewable sources of energy closer to their mills and purchasing carbon offset credits. Some are even offering net-zero emissions steel to help decarbonize the industry.

As a longtime resident of Alexandria, I’m excited to watch the development of the data center industry – especially as it helps create quality, safe middle-class jobs with potential for upward mobility while generating technological innovation and promoting sustainability.

I hope citizens across Virginia will continue to support this homegrown industry and the positive developments it will have for our communities.

Chris Gregory is executive vice president of SteelFab and lives in Alexandria.

(4) comments

Dr Sheik Zubaili

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Ed Pa

I don't think anyone doubts that there is a demand for data centers however temporary that demand may be. No doubt a number of them will fit into appropriate parts of the county. What is in dispute is the wisdom of cramming them into every available acre of farmland surrounding the National Battlefield park.

JP Raflo

Thankfully someone is speaking with rational common sense. Data Centers act as a “natural resource” for Northern Va. The benefit to Northern Va residents is tax revenue to our localities which translates to funding for our schools, funding for our first responders, funding for our parks, and tax revenues from a source other than the backs of home owners.

Naynay Beach

All these statements are true. But it's easier to be supportive of the upside when you're not subjected to the downside. Western PWC is being bombarded with these facilities and there is very little upside if any for the existing residents in my opinion.

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