During the past few years, metro Omaha has built a lot of buzz in the technology world. Recognized nationwide for its educated workforce, strong infrastructure and high standard of living, the metro area is home to tech startups and long-established giants.
Google has a massive and expanding presence in Council Bluffs, while PayPal and Yahoo have facilities in La Vista.
As the area has embraced the jobs and status offered by these tech giants, the companies themselves have put millions of dollars back into local communities through grants, fundraisers and technology projects.
“That's what our team members want,” said Linda Dugan, vice president of global operations for PayPal. “They want to be recognized as being contributors to the community — an organization that makes a difference.”
Twice yearly, PayPal employees vote on grants that will be awarded to local nonprofit organizations. In the first half of 2012, PayPal donated a total of $48,000 to 13 agencies in Omaha. In December, the company distributed another $40,000 to 12 nonprofits.
PayPal also has sponsored blood drives, completed a pair of Habitat for Humanity builds and donated more than $10,000 and 4,000 pounds of food in the Strike Out Hunger drive for Food Bank for the Heartland. Last fall, PayPal employees collected 5,000 backpacks filled with supplies for the Completely KIDS back-to-school drive.
During the holidays, PayPal partnered with the Open Door Mission to collect clothing, toys and food for those in need.
“That's just our culture,” Dugan said. “We've made that kind of commitment. And our team members completely decide where we place our energy.”
Residents of Council Bluffs have seen firsthand how a partnership with a large technology company can reap benefits on the local level. Google, which recently announced expansion plans for its second Council Bluffs facility, helped install free public Wi-Fi networks in areas throughout the city, including a one-mile stretch of downtown.
Visitors to the Council Bluffs Recreation Facility off 24th Street can take advantage of free Wi-Fi while sitting in the bleachers for a baseball, softball, soccer, football or lacrosse game. When Riverfront Park opens on the Iowa side of the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, the entire 90-acre space will have free Wi-Fi access.
“To be wired like this is very important for the future,” said Council Bluffs Mayor Tom Hanafan. “You can be here from Texas for a baseball game and sit in the stands and connect with Wi-Fi. Or you can sit in Bayliss Park on a nice day and get your work done.”
Overall, Google has awarded more than $600,000 in grants to benefit Council Bluffs schools, businesses and nonprofit organizations.
“It's been a pretty good partnership so far,” Hanafan said. “They came here for a lot of good reasons. Google is more than just a company that's here and creating a few jobs.”
Though Google invests in all communities in which it has a presence, each area has different needs.
“We work with our partners in the community to see what would have the biggest impact,” said Chris Russell, hardware operations manager of the Council Bluffs data center. “We try to work to give them what they need.”
The grants and hardware Google provides to local schools helps fill not only technology needs, but also exposes students to engineering as a career. Google recently awarded a $66,900 grant to the Council Bluffs School District to build a student data center at Abraham Lincoln High School. The facility will handle the district's hosting needs, but also will expose students to high-end enterprise equipment.
“When we look at how much technology we have, how much technology is affecting the world, we see that everybody uses it,” Russell said. “But not everybody can handle the back end of it: setting up the network, programming.”
Google provided tablet computers to the Lewis Central School District for a summer program that allowed students studying the environment to log data while in the field.
In October, Google partnered with Iowa Western Community College for a rocket-building contest known as the Anti-Gravity Games. Each high school team was given materials to build a rocket capable not only of flying high and landing safely, but of shooting video from two different angles.
“It's just part of that overall exposure to engineering,” Russell said.
Google also has provided free classes to help local companies take advantage of Internet resources. The Getting Your Business Online classes help business owners create a strong presence through advertising, Google Plus and websites.
Away from the metro area, Google has invested in Iowa wind farms to help provide green power for its operations. In mid-November the company announced a $75 million investment in a wind farm under construction near Rippey, Iowa, about 50 miles northwest of Des Moines.