Women in leadership: Barbara Comstock

Barbara Comstock is a Senior Advisor at Baker Donelson law firm, a recent fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, and the founder of the Young Women’s Leadership Program which will now be housed at the George Mason Schar Schoolof Policy and Government. Ms. Comstock was elected to two terms in Congress for the 10th congressional district in Northern Virginia. As a state delegate, Barbara wrote the law to expand the billion-dollar data center industry.

You have been a leader in Congress and the Virginia General Assembly on technology and data center issues and an inspiration for many women. What inspires you to be in this industry? 

I enjoy working in this industry because it’s not about left or right. Instead it is about what moves us forward and provides the technology to improve our communities and our lives in so many different ways – from health care improvements and technology business development, to meeting national security challenges.  

The work I’ve done in this industry is always bipartisan and a strong positive for our state economy. I think my being named last year as one of the “Top 10 Legislators in Congress” was largely because of a lot of the work that I did in the technology space in a bipartisan manner and achieved substantive results. When I was in the Virginia General Assembly, I worked closely with our tech community and served as Chairwoman of the Science and Technology Committee. I also was the Chairman of the Research and Technology Subcommittee when I served in Congress. I had worked with technology companies in the private sector before I was elected, and I enjoyed working with the innovators in this dynamic and growing industry and meeting so many of the men and women who drive the new economy.

There are also so many talented young people in the tech industry who inspire me to provide the best policies to help them develop their talents to their highest and best use. I’ve also worked to promote more women in the technology and STEM fields. My first bill passed in Congress was the “INSPIRE Women Act,” which promotes more women at NASA and in the STEM fields.

Virginia had lost out to North Carolina in an investment of $1 billion by Apple in 2011. How much of a setback was that for Virginia, and what were the key reasons that the investment went to North Carolina as opposed to Virginia?

 Losing that investment years ago was the wake-up call for Virginia that we had to always be updating our legislation and policies. At that time, we hadn’t updated our law and provided competitive enough tax incentives. I wanted Virginia to continue to be the leader in this area, so I went to work to put together a bipartisan coalition to update our laws. We worked with the Northern Virginia Technology Council and our technology community and I introduced legislation that passed in 2012 to update our tax code for this important infrastructure for the jobs and investments of the 21st century.

Now Virginia is the #1 state and the #1 location in the world for the data center industry. Delegate Tim Hugo, who was a key leader who worked with me on this legislation, renewed the legislation in 2016 (I was in Congress by that time) to continue our leadership in Virginia. As with my legislation, Delegate Hugo’s bill had strong bipartisan support.

The data center bills (HB 216 / SB 112), were sponsored by you and Senator Ryan McDougle, who is the Majority Whip in the State Senate. Can you the key challenges and achievements during the year-long advocacy before it was signed?

 When we started to work on the legislation, we wanted to have bipartisan sponsorship and support, and urban and rural support, so we sought out a diverse group of supporters and sponsors. We organized visits to the data centers themselves, so they got the vision and understood the potential of this growing industry for our Commonwealth. We wanted everyone to understand that this industry had promise for all parts of the Commonwealth.

Initially some of the Commonwealth’s tax staff were skeptical, and didn’t have the vision about hitching our economic wagons to this growing industry and the force multiplier that the business is for our entire Commonwealth. The hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue that the industry now yields for the Commonwealth has allayed those concerns. Leaders in Richmond, on both sides of the aisle, are to be commended for understanding that data centers generate tremendous opportunities for the entire Commonwealth and for their own communities, and that the strong bipartisan policy of Virginia has allowed us to be a technology front-runner, with the workforce to support the economy of the future.

Today we not only have the thriving Data Center Alley in Ashburn in Loudoun County, but we have data centers in the Virginia Beach and Richmond area as well as Mecklenburg County where Microsoft has had numerous expansions of their data center sites.

It is believed that Loudoun County is the leading data center market in the world by a factor of two to three times, how impactful was the legislation that was passed in 2012 to the growth of data centers in Virginia over the last seven years?

 In Loudoun County alone, the data centers yielded over $200 million last year from the personal property tax on computer equipment – up 35 percent in just the past year and heading to $300 million according to Buddy Rizer, Loudoun County’s Economic Development Executive Director and Loudoun’s data center “godfather.” Loudoun’s data centers are home to more than 3,400 technology companies housed within them. The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors was able to adopt a $3.2 billion operating budget this year that featured a significant cut to the real estate tax rate, an across-the-board pay raise for county employees, and a nearly $100 million increase for the county public schools.

A local Loudoun supervisor explained that the average homeowner saved $1,000 a year in taxes due to data centers. Loudoun County’s ability to reduce the tax rate is unique among local jurisdictions in the D.C. metro area. Surrounding jurisdictions have largely raised taxes while cutting budgets – so data centers have really helped Loudoun County defy the odds. They are a unique win-win industry. In 2018, Loudoun County welcomed more than $5 billion in investment, and the creation of nearly 1,000 new jobs.

The revenue generated from data centers goes to supporting the local schools and public safety as well as reduced taxes. Now these benefits are spreading to counties across the Commonwealth – both urban and rural — as they expand their data center footprint. Buddy Rizer recently noted that data centers played a part in enabling Loudoun County Public Schools to finally move to all-day kindergarten for all the county students.

Clearly several states in the U.S. have been trying to follow the Virginia model. Do you think Virginia could lose its status as the #1 data center state in U.S. and the world?

A rising tide lifts all boats! Working together, Virginia opened the door to billions of dollars of investments in the form of high-tech data processing and hosting centers, and we remain the No. 1 state for data centers. Google’s recent announcement that it will double its data center and office footprint in Virginia, coupled with Amazon choosing the commonwealth as its second headquarters, show that our commitment to creating an attractive technology business climate is delivering results and revenue. Data centers are the backbone of that commitment.

Good economic policy is good across the country and I’m pleased to see more states such as Indiana, Idaho and Illinois adopt our model. Data centers are necessary infrastructure for the 21st century economy, so it is great that many states are replicating our leadership in Virginia. Not only do the high wages in the data center industry offer a large source of state income tax revenue for our state, but these centers also are a driving force in the development of renewable energy resources, new roads, and utility and Internet upgrades. We are happy to share our good economic policy and at the same time I’m confident that Virginia can retain our top spot in the industry and I’m happy to work with all of those engaged in keeping us the leader in the country and internationally. Our Virginia data center leaders are sought after speakers at world conferences on this topic!

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