Google's Growing Empire: A New Company Town?

The entrance to NASA's Research Park at Ames, California.

“I don’t want to say it’s the new company town,” reflects one real-estate executive of Google’s rapidly expanding domain, “but it’s not far from it.”

In an article penned by reporter Mike Swift, The Silicon Valley Mercury News describes how Google’s real-estate footprint has grown in the past four years to occupy more than 4 million square feet. And coming soon: a new Google corporate campus on Silicon Valley’s NASA base at Ames that will include employee housing. That new facility will add another 1.2 million square feet to the company’s real-estate holdings.

Swift also notes that Google is encouraging the city of Mountain View, California–the location of its much discussed Googleplex–to transform the area around its headquarters, adding more housing and retail establishments.

Just how many employees does Google foresee living and working at the NASA Ames Research Center? The company won’t say–nor will it even disclose the number of workers currently in Mountain View, although  Swift estimates that there are 17,000.  The complex at Ames is still in the planning stages, with construction scheduled to begin in 2013. Housing there could take up 10% of the new campus’s space, meaning perhaps 60 2,000-sq.-ft. dwellings.

Some people may be reluctant to use the term “company town,” with its negative connotations. But there is no other term–and history has shown that company towns need not be slums or Orwellian dystopias. In Mountain View, the company says it wants a “nurturing and regenerative” environment, complete with “vibrant community and work/life balance.”  And maybe it has similar goals for the Ames campus.

In planning Hershey, Pennsylvania, Milton Hershey announced that he intended to build a community where there would be “no poverty, no nuisances, no evil.” Google, too, is down on evil–“Don’t be evil,” its informal motto instructs. So maybe, like Hershey, the Ames facility will be a home, sweet home. Here’s hoping.

CNN's Report on Hershey's Plant Closing

Part of the Milton Hershey School in the town of Hershey, Pa.

CNN’s report from Hershey, Pa. dwells at length with the plight of workers displaced by the closing of Hershey Foods’  historic Chocolate Avenue plant. (I appear on camera, telling viewers that other townspeople are affected as well.)

The problem with reports such as these is that they leave us just where we are: in despair about deindustrialization, puzzled about where the next jolt of U.S. economic development will come from. Nevertheless, they seem to catch the temper of the times, when many Americans are frustrated and frightened.

The report airs on CNN around midday today, but you can also catch it on the Web at:

And in case you missed the New York Times review of my book on Sunday, you can see it at:

In Hershey, PA, a Worrisome Plant Closing

Hershey Co.'s flagship plant is slated to be shuttered, with 500 jobs disappearing.

Can the Hershey company really close its flagship plant? The many-acre facility right on Hershey, Pa.’s main drag, a.k.a. Chocolate Avenue, has signaled to thousands of visitors that they are in Chocolate Town, U.S.A.–not least because the aroma of chocolate fills the very air.

But the factory is set to close, as the company announced this summer. Five hundred jobs will go, and six hundred other jobs will be transferred to a more modern $300 million facility on the edge of town.

“Lots of those workers were ready to retire anyway,” one local citizen told me during a recent visit. “Hershey will take care of them–it always has.”

Maybe. But more and more of the company’s production is going abroad, to Mexico and Asia.

The town of Hershey seems as prosperous and welcoming as ever, even with the vast Hershey Park amusement area largely closed for the season–its roller-coaster-like rides momentarily stilled.

A large patch of green near the plant’s gate is emblazoned with “Hershey’s Cocoa” spelled out in flowers. Up on a hill overlooking the village is the opulent, rambling Hotel Hershey, situated near Hershey Gardens and the imposing middle-school branch of the Milton Hershey School, endowed in 1915 with all of the founder’s company stock.

The endowment is managed from an imposing building tagged The Hershey Trust, also right on Chocolate Avenue. Milton Hershey’s old mansion provides further quarters for the wealthy school.

On a beautiful autumn day, the town hardly seems representative of a blighted, deindustrialized land. But that spectre haunts America in 2010, as I’ve learned during several recent radio-show appearances. Americans are worried that the recession hardly seems over–and as corporations continue to shift jobs abroad, the citizenry frets that no new economic development is on the horizon. One caller, a truck driver, told me that he used to pick up and deliver lots of steel produced in Gary, Indiana and elsewhere. Nowadays, much of his freight consists of used equipment being shipped abroad. Where will replacement jobs come from? No one in Washington or anywhere else seems to have an answer.