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Foxconn Promised Wisconsin 'Innovation Centers,' But Hasn't Yet Delivered


Foxconn announced nearly three years ago it would build a big manufacturing plant in the U.S. States fought to land the company. Wisconsin got it. It offered more than $3 billion in tax incentives. In return, the company promised 13,000 new jobs. Now, this seemed like a win for President Trump and the state's Republican governor. Corrinne Hess of Wisconsin Public Radio reports many of the promises are still unrealized.

CORRINNE HESS, BYLINE: Two years ago, former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker stood in a crowded office tower in downtown Milwaukee, about 30 miles north of Foxconn's planned manufacturing plant. Seven months earlier, the company had announced it would build a much-ballyhooed 22-million-square-foot facility in exchange for one of the largest tax incentive deals ever made between a state and private company. In Milwaukee, Walker was promising much more.


SCOTT WALKER: We see the ever-growing footprint of Wisconn Valley in this state, and we see what we like to call the Foxconn bonus.

HESS: Over the next several months, that Foxconn bonus included establishing innovation centers all across the state in Milwaukee, Green Bay, Eau Claire, Racine and Madison. Foxconn bought buildings in the cities' downtowns, promising to employ hundreds of workers at each site. The company said it would recruit from nearby colleges. Two years later, nothing has opened, and none of the 1,200 jobs have been filled. The innovation centers themselves were vaguely explained as a place to foster entrepreneurship.

Matt Jewell is an engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He hoped his students could work at Foxconn, but he's unclear what the company is doing.

MATT JEWELL: As a general term, innovation center doesn't say anything specific to us. So we were, from the start, kind of looking to understand what they meant by that.

HESS: I'm standing outside of a seven-story concrete office building in downtown Milwaukee. This was to be Foxconn's North American headquarters, but what I can see is construction being done on a future bank branch. While Foxconn does have an office here, this is not what was initially promised, and city officials say they expected something different, too.

ROBERT BAUMAN: They bought a commercial building in downtown Milwaukee - not even a particularly impressive commercial building - an old, obsolete 1960s-era building - going to be their North American headquarters. If they have five people working there, I'll be surprised.

HESS: That's Milwaukee's downtown Alderman Robert Bauman.

BAUMAN: It ultimately was all political. It was all designed to ensure the reelection of Scott Walker - no question about it - and to a lesser degree, to play to the political storyline that Trump was trying to peddle.

HESS: Walker lost reelection in 2018 to Tony Evers.

Foxconn is planning to work on its centers in Green Bay and Racine this year, although permits show them to be less than one-fifth the size originally announced. Kevin Vonck is Green Bay's development director and says until the project is complete, the city won't know how many workers Foxconn will hire.

KEVIN VONCK: Best case, they build out the initial proposal of this innovation center with, you know, 200-plus employees. Worst case, obviously, is, like, they don't do anything at all and become an absentee landlord.

HESS: Foxconn executives have not agreed to repeated requests for interviews. But in a text message, Alan Yeung, Foxconn's director of U.S. strategic initiatives, was noncommittal about the future of the innovation centers.

The project continues to divide the state politically. Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz portrays it as politics colliding with business.

GORDON HINTZ: Foxconn has admitted that it doesn't make any sense from a financial standpoint to do any manufacturing in the U.S., much less Wisconsin.

HESS: But Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald says Foxconn should be left alone to conduct its business.

SCOTT FITZGERALD: I have John Deere in my district. I don't check in with them on a regular basis to say, jeez, what are you guys doing at this juncture, you know? I mean, it's the private sector. They need to be able to have the flexibility to be competitive and move at the speed of business.

HESS: Even though Scott Walker is no longer governor, President Trump remains one of Foxconn's biggest supporters. He came here for the groundbreaking of the Foxconn plant nearly three years ago, and he'll be here again Tuesday to give another campaign speech.

For NPR News in Milwaukee, I'm Corrinne Hess.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUM SONG, "BLESSED BRAMBLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrinne Hess
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