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Google rumor mill churning at high speed in Duluth

Coming to Duluth?

Google's coming to Duluth! And they're building a massive data center down by the harbor, and will use Lake Superior water to cool their servers! No, wait, they're building a center somewhere inland and don't need to go near the waterfront.

Or maybe not.

"I've heard all of the rumors, too," said Ben Damman, who was on the Google Twin Ports team and is involved with various tech startups. "It's hard to say what's real and what's speculation."

What's real: The last time Google made any public statement on which city or cities they'd pick to install high-speed fiber lines to the home was Dec. 15. That's when the company's vice president of access services posted a blog statement that Google would make an announcement in early 2011.

"That's the last I've heard, too," Duluth Mayor Don Ness said.

Ness said it's been several months since he's had any "direct" communication with anybody from Google.

Does that mean there's been indirect communication?

"There are folks that have personal connections with folks with Google at different levels," he said. "And they're trying to keep those channels open."

And some of that indirect communication has suggested that Google is still considering the possibility of coming to Duluth, Ness said, including the company's positive reaction to the business plan the city submitted to the company and the community support when Google was seeking bids on the fiber project.

"We have gotten hints of their interest in Duluth over the last year, and that fuels the enthusiasm for the possibility (of them coming)," he said.

The main rumor circulating surrounds the company's desire to build a massive data center near the bayfront, possibly at the former LaFarge cement terminal site, and use water from Lake Superior to cool the servers. That's a concept that would fit with Google's desire to be perceived as a green company, Damman said.

"And other Google centers use water cooling," he said.

If that was Google's intention, Duluth would have what the search giant needs, Ness said.

"We have cool weather, cool water in abundance, no earthquakes, competitive electricity rates, and we're centrally located in North America," he said.

But for now, there's no evidence to support the idea that Google's use of such technology in Duluth is more than just rumor.

Sandy Hoff, a co-owner of the LaFarge site, said no one has communicated with him about Google using that facility.

He said several months ago there was some conversation with Pure Driven, the social media strategy team that put together the Google Twin Ports marketing campaign, about using the facility as a site for cloud computing companies -- essentially Internet-based computing. That idea started out as being for Google, Hoff said, but branched out to possibilities of technology companies.

"But they dropped me completely out of the loop," Hoff said.

And if Google -- or any other company -- is going to use Lake Superior water to cool its servers, it would require approval and permitting from numerous regulatory agencies. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers have told the News Tribune they haven't received any permit requests.

Of course, if the mayor or anyone in the know actually had information about Google coming to the Twin Ports, would they say anything publicly -- given the company's desire for secrecy?

"If I did know," Ness said, "and if it came to it, and we have a partnership with Google, I would certainly take their direction."