Starting last June, officials with the Taiwanese tech manufacturing giant began popping up in all corners of the state and announcing new projects. It had been almost a year since then-Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) offered the company a subsidy package that came to total $4.5 billion. Both Walker, who was in the midst of a reelection campaign, and Foxconn, which had just confirmed that it would build a far smaller factory than it had initially promised, seemed eager to make a good impression.
First, there was Louis Woo, special assistant to Foxconn CEO Terry Gou, announcing a new headquarters and “innovation center” in Milwaukee. Days later, Gou was standing in a field 40 minutes south in Mount Pleasant, digging gold shovels into the dirt with Walker, Paul Ryan, and President Trump, who declared Foxconn’s factory the “eighth wonder of the world.” Then it was off to Green Bay, where Foxconn announced another innovation center, and then Eau Claire, where Foxconn announced two more — a full “technology hub.”
Next came a $100 million gift to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a venture fund, and competitions to design the innovation centers, with fast turnarounds — just two weeks to submit proposals — and plans to open in just months. As summer turned to fall, Foxconn kept going: an innovation center for Racine, and another groundbreaking, for a Foxconn expansion at a nearby technical college. More branded ball caps, more gold shovels. One observer quipped that Foxconn had created jobs in the Wisconsin events business, at least.
Then the announcements stopped.
In January, work at the Mount Pleasant factory came to a halt, and Foxconn officials began to publicly waffle about their plans. In the span of a single week, Woo said that the company wouldn’t build a factory, then that whatever Foxconn was building “cannot be simply described as a factory,” then, after a call with Trump, that Foxconn would build a factory after all.
Throughout its gyrations, Foxconn maintained that it would create 13,000 jobs, though what those 13,000 people would be doing shifted gradually from manufacturing to research into what Foxconn calls its “AI 8K+5G ecosystem.” Other than buzzwords for high-resolution screens and high-speed cell networks, what this ecosystem is has never been fully explained. In February, a Foxconn executive cheerfully likened the company’s vague, morphing plans to designing and building an airplane midflight.
Such statements have not been particularly reassuring to residents of Wisconsin, where state and local governments have already taken very concrete actions to prepare the way for what was supposed to be an enormous manufacturing facility. Taxpayers have already spent more than $300 million on roadwork, infrastructure, and land acquisition related to the project. In August, Moody’s downgraded Mount Pleasant’s credit rating over the extreme levels of debt it took on for the area’s $763 million incentive package, costs that have since grown closer to a billion, in part because it had to take out higher interest long-term loans after Foxconn’s plans changed. Dozens of residents have been relocated, some under threat of eminent domain.
Adding to the confusion is the comical level of secrecy that’s shrouding the Foxconn project. The company almost never grants interviews. Even Mount Pleasant’s Village Board is supposed to route all Foxconn-related questions through a public relations firm. Getting answers is so difficult that a local TV reporter recently drove to the house of village president Dave DeGroot, who, hiding behind his half-closed door, told the reporter to go away.
Mount Pleasant residents engage in Kremlinology based on overheard conversations at local bars and which contractors are seen coming and going from the site, which is heavily patrolled by private security. Even then, appearances can be misleading. Most of the construction that was visible from the roads in Mount Pleasant this winter wasn’t being done by Foxconn, but by government contractors building roads and utilities.
As for the innovation centers announced across the state, Foxconn has bought property, but beyond that, much is unclear, including what an “innovation center” actually is.
By mid-March, it had been weeks without any update on the project, and the state officials I had been talking to were mystified as to what was happening. I decided to go to Wisconsin to see how things were going. After so many events in half a dozen cities, surely I would find Foxconn somewhere?
Josh’s article is pretty in-depth on where Foxconn currently stands in their Wisconsin expansion, it’s definitely worth a read, maybe even a couple reads to catch details you might miss the first time.