You Can’t Fight City Hall

I don’t think it’s a huge assumption to say that we’ve all had to ask the government for permission to perform some action at one time or another. If you want to drive a car, the friendly and efficient folks at the DMV are more than happy to issue you a license: just pack a lunch, bring a large book and take a number. Thinking about adding a family room to your humble abode, pop on down to city hall, and wherever else they may send you, obtain the necessary permits, hire a government-licensed contractor, submit to periodic inspections, and you’re on your way to constructing a new home for your 100” flat screen.

Naturally, if for no other reason than transaction volume, someone is going to have, shall we say, a less than satisfactory experience dealing with a government representative whose salary is paid for by their tax dollars every once in a while. If you happen to fall within the Venn Diagram intersection of Government and Incompetency, you are not alone and can now commiserate with the people at Apple.

Our story begins in Athenry, a small town nestled in the bucolic countryside of western Ireland. Athenry is a nice place populated with small shops, aging castles, gorgeous views, and, of course, Athenrians. One day some folks from Cupertino came to town and, after taking a look around, said to themselves, “This would be a swell place for a data center. There’s a lot of available land with green energy sources nearby and a 12% corporate tax rate—what’s not to love?” Generally, the citizens of Athenry and, Ireland as a whole, agreed. Thus, Apple began the process of adding a new $1billion data center to the Emerald Isle.

Since 1 in 10 Irish jobs are provided by multi-national companies, and Apple certainly qualifies since you can pick up an iPhone in Astana, Kazakhstan, as easily as you can in Dublin, no one anticipated any problems as the planning and permitting processes commenced. Unfortunately, it was at this point that things began to go “off the rails,” as they say. As all involved soon found out, even a corporate behemoth is no match for a not so friendly planning appeals process. Apparently, two individuals stood fearless and undaunted in the face of what they felt was a corporate incursion that would change the nature of the town forever, and, using continual appeals as metaphoric speed bumps, thereby caused the entire process to drag on for three years.

Patience may be a virtue, but it also has its limits. It took Apple 1095 days to reach its limit before formally announcing the decision to end the project despite a personal visit from Ireland’s Prime Minister. For those of you asking yourselves, “If a colossus like Apple can’t get permission to build a $1 billion facility, what chance do I have of getting a permit to build that deck the wife’s been asking for”, a bright spot has arisen from the whole ordeal. The government of Ireland, who clearly understand the relationship between geese and golden eggs, is now in the process of passing a law designating data centers as “strategic infrastructure” that includes a more expedient planning process. I guess there’s hope for us after all.

I’m no stranger to the byzantine nature of government interaction, and Apple’s experience is not atypical. Hopefully, more national, state and local governments will heed Ireland’s action and work to streamline their approval and permitting processes whether they are for a large corporation or the guy who wants to install a pool. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. As for the fine people of Athenry, let me paraphrase the end of an old American poem to describe their mood at the moment:

“Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
and somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere leaves float gently down;
but there is no joy in Athenry—mighty Apple has left town.”