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Unanswered Questions in Cascade Locks

Unanswered Questions in Cascade Locks
Columbia River view looking west toward Bridge of the Gods and Cascade Locks. (Friends' archive)
By Sofia Urrutia-Lopez
Conservation Organizer

April 15, 2023

A personal perspective on a controversial data center proposal

Sofia Urrutia-Lopez joined Friends of the Columbia Gorge as a conservation organizer in January 2022, focusing on community building, youth education, and organizing public testimony. She has previously worked with the Cascade Locks Tourism Committee and Play Frontier, an equitable nonprofit play and nature school. She's also served on the board of Breweries in the Gorge, participated in the Gorge Tourism Summit, and graduated from Rural Development Initiatives' “Rural Community Leadership Program.” Here, she writes on the controversial data center proposal in Cascade Locks, Oregon, and the silencing of community input for the project.

On March 20, Columbia Insight published an extensive exposé on Stephen D. King, the CEO of tech startup Roundhouse, which has proposed a new data center in Cascade Locks, Oregon. Here is a summary of the article’s main takeaways:

  • Roundhouse has begun the process that would lead to a 25-year lease for a “green” data center at the Port of Cascade Locks’ Business Park.
  • Some Cascade Locks community members are frustrated by what they perceive as contradictory information and a lack of transparency about the proposed project from both Roundhouse and Port of Cascade Locks commissioners.
  • Community members have also voiced concerns about water usage, pollution, and potential utility rate hikes.
  • King has a history of failed business ventures; interview subjects claim lost investments and misrepresentation (King disputes these claims).
  • The Port itself is dealing with budget shortfalls stemming from overreliance on bridge tolls, a previous tenant breaking its lease, and a racial discrimination lawsuit.

Waterfalls, forests, rivers, wildflowers, wildlife, hiking, and scenic viewpoints are the classic emblems of the Columbia River Gorge that make it a worldwide destination for hikers and nature lovers. But the Gorge is also home to vibrant communities and small businesses that rely on both residents and tourists to thrive.

The people of the Gorge are as unique as the Gorge itself. Millworkers, agricultural workers, business owners, stay-at-home parents, brewers, bartenders—the list goes on. It also includes me, a longtime resident of Stevenson, Washington, and Gorge conservation and cultural activist. Every day I stare at the Oregon mountains from my windows. I see the river and the forest. It's an incredible vantage point from which to witness the temperamental Gorge weather. I've watched brilliant sunshine, rain downpours, whiteout blizzards, ice storms, and hurricane-force winds—sometimes all in one day. I can see the community of Cascade Locks directly across the Columbia from my home, and a small sliver of the Bridge of the Gods in between a stand of trees. I had a direct sight line when the Eagle Creek fire started, and I witnessed it burning for months.

Just as natural disasters can imperil the Gorge, so can ineffectual leadership. Communities that are not seen or heard by their elected officials suffer because they believe their voices are powerless.

Recently, I've witnessed a governmental body ignore the people of Cascade Locks. As I’ve gathered with the community members of Cascade Locks, it is clear that this is not the first time that residents have questioned decisions made by their port leaders. An accumulation of bad contracts, lack of vetting, and unfulfilled promises from business owners has led the Port of Cascade Locks to suffer financially time and again. Recently, this has led to an effort to recall two port commissioners.

Now, without a meaningful public process, a controversial project is lurching forward. The project—proposed by tech startup Roundhouse Cloud Innovation Center—is a data center that would be in Flex Building 6 at the Port’s Business Park. The data center itself is not the center of this controversy; it is the lack of transparency. Many questions have been posed to the Port of Cascade Locks for which there have been no clear answers, even months after the initial proposal. Despite holding public meetings, the community has felt excluded. During the single public open house with data center executives and Port Commissioners, answers were vague.

The community has asked questions about water, electricity, and chemical usage. Many are concerned about how much water will be used, and from where the water will be drawn. How much electricity will the data center use and would that eventually increase community electricity rates to the point of inequity. Concerns have also been raised over any chemical usage to cool the servers. What will the community be on the hook for if the deal falls through? All of these are valid questions and concerns, none of which have been addressed properly.

For example, the project proposal states that the data center will use “cooling system technology that does not require vast amounts of water.” However, King and Roundhouse’s chief engineer James Longacre have made contrasting statements about the nature of the cooling system. In what I have observed firsthand, it has been stated on different occasions that: a) the data center would use a "closed loop” cooling system; b) there will be no water usage; and c) there will be water usage, but only equivalent to the total water usage of four households in a year—numerous answers to the same question, depending on who and when you ask. How can a community trust an answer that constantly changes?

To add to the mistrust and lack of communication, Roundhouse CEO Stephen D. King has a checkered history with other business dealings, as highlighted in the Columbia Insight article linked above. As a Gorge resident and an active community member of Cascade Locks, I am worried about the future of this project and the impact it will have on the community, the environment, and the Port’s financial stability. Reading the article makes one thing very clear: a fuller picture exists than what’s currently being shared with the public.

When it comes to ensuring well-run governments, former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously stated, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Columbia Insight brought some needed sunlight to an issue and place in need of it. It is now up to the community of Cascade Locks to demand answers to the questions they have. It is my job and duty to uplift and support those people. Advocating for Gorge communities is something I am committed to doing every day. I will continue to follow the movement and be involved in supporting the community of Cascade Locks.

UPDATE: Please join us online on Monday, April 17 at 4 p.m. at the Hood River County Board of Commissioners’ work session and business meeting. Concerned community members are gathering to voice their concerns regarding Roundhouse’s business proposal in Cascade Locks through their CPACE program. Register for the April 17 Zoom webinar.

The Port of Cascade Locks Commissioners will meet on Thursday, April 20 at 6 p.m. via Zoom or in person. Although there is no agenda currently, it is likely that Roundhouse will be added as an agenda item. Community members will be gathering to voice their concerns regarding Roundhouse’s business proposal for the Flex 6 building. Register to attend the April 20 meeting via Zoom. The address to attend in person is: Cascade Locks City Hall, 140 Wa Na Pa St., Cascade Locks, Oregon, 97014.

Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed an April 17 "Hood River Board of Commissioners" work session. It is the Hood River COUNTY Board of Commissioners. The article has been corrected.