By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. – There are still plenty of people in Wisconsin who think the Taiwan-based Foxconn Technology Group is giving the state a giant head fake.
Skeptics think the company has no intention to put down roots in Wisconsin, and is simply waiting for the chance to abscond with our tax dollars and scamper home.
The latest company announcement rammed home the fact that nothing could be further from the truth.
Foxconn is buying a seven-story building in downtown Milwaukee from Northwestern Mutual, Wisconsin’s 161-year-old insurance giant. It will be the company’s North American headquarters and a center for activities outside its planned manufacturing plant in Racine County.
Those activities will include innovation, incubation, venture capital investment possibilities and other commercial dealings. The building has the capacity to hold 650 people and will be renamed Foxconn Place.
The move was praised by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and Gov. Scott Walker, who joined in the Feb. 5 announcement.
“Foxconn is putting a stake in the ground,” said Abele, once touted as a Democratic candidate for governor. “This is an extraordinary opportunity…”
At the same news conference, Foxconn executive Louis Woo pledged the company will “work for the next 161 years to not only witness but actively participate in the transformation and growth of Wisconsin.”
If that’s a head fake, it beats anything we just saw in the Super Bowl.
People may continue to debate whether Foxconn’s 13,000 direct jobs and its predicted supply-chain effects are worth the state tax credits, but they need to remember Foxconn won’t get those credits unless the company meets specific job and capital goals over time.
The contract between the state and Foxconn is tightly written, as it should be, and lays down job and capital investment markers over a 15-year schedule. It’s a “pay-as-you-grow” strategy that can throttle up or down depending on the company’s performance.
In the meantime, skeptics should at least acknowledge that Foxconn is working hard to be a permanent and active corporate citizen of Wisconsin.
It shows not only in the Milwaukee headquarters announcement, but in job fairs, research and development relationships, supply chain spadework, land acquisition, transportation planning and more across the state.
In Milwaukee, the Regional Talent Partnership organized through the Milwaukee 7 economic development group is trying to meet the area’s workforce attraction and retention demands – including those tied to Foxconn.
UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone is leading that partnership, which involves other universities and technical colleges. The group includes UW-Parkside and Gateway Technical College, which is knee-deep in Foxconn workforce planning in Racine and Kenosha counties. Mone will speak at the March 19 Wisconsin Tech Summit in Waukesha, where Foxconn representatives will meet with emerging companies.
Marquette University and the Milwaukee School of Engineering are examples of colleges where Foxconn representatives have met with students and faculty; MSOE has announced plans for a gift-funded $34-million computational science and artificial science center to keep up with growing talent and R&D demands.
The city of Milwaukee is examining the possibility of expanded Amtrak service in the Milwaukee-to-Chicago rail route, in part to accommodate anticipated Foxconn workers traffic from the city to Racine County and back.
Meanwhile, reconstruction of I-94 south of Milwaukee is set to begin in earnest in 2019.
The highway will be widened from six lanes to eight from College Avenue in Milwaukee south to Highway 142 in Kenosha County. Interchanges will be rebuilt, as will frontage roads between Highway 20 and Highway KR, the stretch of interstate closest to the planned Foxconn campus.
While it’s a bittersweet experience for many farmers in the Racine town of Mount Pleasant, Foxconn is paying about five times per acre – about $50,000 – what land sold for before the company decided to build there.
Many people still have their doubts about the size of the Foxconn deal and remain concerned about environmental effects. At this point, however, those who still believe Foxconn is giving a giant head fake are only faking themselves.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.