A California company plans to bring a $300 million data center to the mostly empty Millinocket site of what was once the world’s largest paper mill, marking the first new industrial tenant on the property since papermaking stopped in 2008.
Nautilus Data Technologies plans to locate its new 60-megawatt data center on 13 acres at the 1,400-acre former site of the Great Northern Paper Company. The site is now owned by the nonprofit volunteer group Our Katahdin.
The first phase of the project is set to begin operating by the end of 2022 and could bring up to 30 jobs to the area.
The company will become the first new tenant at the site since the paper mill shut down, sending shockwaves through a Katahdin region that had built its economy around papermaking. The former Greater Northern Paper Co. mill in neighboring East Millinocket closed for good in 2014.
Officials from Nautilus and Our Katahdin signed a 99-year-lease agreement on May 18 that allowed for development at the Millinocket site to begin immediately.
Data centers are, in many ways, the backbone of the internet, with their servers safeguarding data and applications for people, businesses and organizations around the world. Nautilus will use the Millinocket data center for cloud storage.
As the site owner, Our Katahdin will continue to pay property taxes to the town of Millinocket for the site. Nautilus will pay property taxes on the equipment used at the data site.
Nautilus first became aware of the site through Our Katahdin Vice President Michael Faloon, who was introduced to CEO James Connaughton by a coworker about three years ago. Nautilus shared investors with Faloon’s company, Ready, Faloon said.
Connaughton served as a chief environmental adviser to former President George W. Bush, chairing the White House Council on Environmental Quality for both of the Republican president’s terms.
Nautilus explored opening at the site for about two years before more serious discussions began about a year ago, Our Katahdin President Sean DeWitt said. The company was able to more seriously focus on the Millinocket center after the company finalized its first data center in the Port of Stockton in California, which opened earlier this year.
Several aspects made the Millinocket site appealing to Nautilus, but the most significant may have been the gravity-fed water on the site that Nautilus will be able to use in its cooling system. The hydroelectric dam operated on site by Brookfield Renewable Energy will also be a vital source of energy for an operation that will be heavily dependent on a ready source of electricity. And the large, secured mill site around the data center can act as a security buffer.
Nautilus’ data centers are unique because they use water rather than more common air-based cooling to keep servers from overheating. Water cooling is more environmentally friendly than other cooling methods, with the data center’s cooling using 70 percent less power than a standard data center and producing more than 30 percent fewer carbon emissions, Nautilus officials said.
“For them, the access to water was just as important as the access to power,” DeWitt said. “And we do have that gravity-fed water that significantly reduces the operating costs of pumps and other things.”
Millinocket’s stable, cold climate was also appealing, as data center servers need to be kept cool.
The 4,300-resident town is also located along Maine’s Three Ring Binder, an 1,100-mile fiber optic network that runs through many rural regions of the state, providing dependable, fast internet access. In addition, doing business in the town has tax benefits for investors, as Millinocket is one of seven federal Opportunity Zones in Penobscot County.
The Opportunity Zone designation, a part of the tax cut package former President Donald Trump signed into law in 2017, allows investors who put money into projects in those areas to avoid taxes on the capital gains returned by their investments.
In a way, Nautilus’ operations are a modern successor to the site’s century-old role. While the Millinocket mill was once a global leader in newsprint production, the data center will store information electronically, interim Millinocket Town Manager Richard Angotti said.
Nautilus will build the center on the brownfield section of the mill site, the former location of paper machines when the site was in operation. The company expects to perform engineering on the site, secure the necessary permits and start construction this year.
Gov. Janet Mills and Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King will all be on hand for the Saturday announcement of Nautilus’ plans.