On his visit to Kenosha, Wis., Sept. 1 in the wake of protests and violence there after police shot a Black man in the back, President Donald Trump spent most of the day talking tough on law and order.
Two years ago, when he visited nearby Mount Pleasant, Wis., economic development was on the agenda. He was there pushing a shovel into the ground alongside the chief executive of Foxconn Technology Group to kick off the start of a 20 million-square-foot technology campus slated to produce big-screen LCD television screens.
With the help of $4.5 billion in state subsidies — more than Wisconsin spends on its state university system and prisons together each year — along with rolled-back environmental regulations, Foxconn CEO Terry Gou promised 13,000 jobs and a total investment of $10 billion or more.
The investment was also expected to spur $4.26 billion in annual supply chain spending, with about a third of that to come from Wisconsin suppliers.
The facility's planning once drew the nonstop attention of media and Wisconsin politicians — most Democrats opposed it and the tax breaks. But as the first building prepares to open, the firestorm of attention has died down, as though the drama has devolved into anticlimax.
"The media has lost so much interest in Foxconn recently that the public around here had begun to assume that construction had stopped for good," said Michael Kraft, a professor emeritus in public and environmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin's Green Bay campus who has followed Foxconn's planning from the start. "The expectations were excessively high, and much of what the skeptics who voted against Foxconn said has been proven right."
Instead of 20 million square feet, the company is poised in coming weeks to finally open its first building, a 1 million-square-foot plant slated to produce, initially at least, not LCD screens, but masks and ventilators for the COVID-19 crisis. The company won't say how many people are employed there, but it is probably in the hundreds, not thousands, according to local observers.
Nevertheless, local officials are putting the best face on Foxconn, even as they negotiate to drastically reduce promised subsidies. So far the facility is a shrunken shadow of what had once been expected.
It now appears it will never fabricate the largest, most expensive LCD screens that were once envisioned by Foxconn management. Instead, the company is likely to make smaller screens and concentrate on other kinds of manufacturing and assembly.
Foxconn executives have told media outlets that they are focusing on data servers, high-performance computing services and 5G communications networks. Executives have also mentioned industrial artificial intelligence and research into factory automation but have given no details.
Claude Lois, project coordinator for Foxconn for the village of Mount Pleasant, notes that Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. Ltd., Foxconn's New Taipei City, Taiwan-based parent company, is at work on an additional 400,000 square feet of production space that will come online in the future.
"Foxconn has already invested over $500 million in our community," he says. "It's already the largest taxpayer in the village of Mount Pleasant, having made $8.4 million in tax payments by the end of 2019." Mount Pleasant has a population of 26,000.
Bryan Albrecht, the president of Gateway Technical College in neighboring Racine, a bigger town of 79,000, says that Foxconn's $522 million in assets in Mount Pleasant "is more than the total combined manufacturing tax base in Racine of $514 million last year. That would indicate significant progress is being made."
The company has hired Gateway students to work at Foxconn, Albrecht adds. Many of them have begun assembling masks under the Sharp brand name. In written responses to a reporter's questions, Foxconn says it will seek out more manufacturing partnerships in the future. The ventilators, for instance, are being produced with the help of Fridley, Minn.-based Medtronic plc.
Any disappointment in the jobs created so far by Foxconn may be overshadowed by the state's reeling farm economy. As detailed in a New Yorker magazine article two weeks ago, slumping milk prices and nose-diving export opportunities have led to half of the 14,000 or so family farms populating the state a decade ago to go dark.