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Milwaukee’s Absentee Landlord: Foxconn has not delivered on its promised “Innovation Centers”

Two years ago, former 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 announced it would build a 22-million-square-foot facility in Mount Pleasant in exchange for one of the largest tax incentive deals ever made between a state and private company. Those plans have since changed. Foxconn is currently building a nearly 1 million-square-foot manufacturing building in Mount Pleasant that is expected to be open later this year or in early 2021. The company and the state are currently renegotiating their contract to reflect the changes. And in Milwaukee, Walker was promising much more.

“We see the ever-growing footprint of Wisconn Valley in this state, and we see what we like to call, the ‘Foxconn bonus,'” Walker said.

Over the next several months that Foxconn bonus included establishing innovation centers 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, an engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, said he hoped his students could work at Foxconn. But he is unclear what the company is doing.

“As a general term, innovation center doesn’t say anything specific to us, so we were from the start trying to understand what they meant by that,” Jewell said.

Outside of the seven-story concrete office building in downtown Milwaukee that was announced as Foxconn’s North American headquarters two years ago, there is construction being done on a future bank branch. Foxconn does have an office there, but it is not what was initially promised. And city officials say they expected more.

“They bought a commercial building in downtown Milwaukee,” said Alder Robert Bauman, who represents downtown Milwaukee. “Not even a completely impressive commercial building. An old, obsolete 1960s-era building of modest height, modest scale. If they have five people working there, I’ll be surprised.”

Bauman said the entire project was designed to ensure the re-election of Walker, a Republican, in 2018. Walker lost that year to now-Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat.

“No question about it,” Bauman said. “And to a lesser degree to play to a political storyline that (President Donald) Trump was trying to pedal.”

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. Green Bay Development Director Kevin Vonck said until the project is complete, the city won’t know how many workers Foxconn will hire.

“Best case, they build out the initial proposal of this innovation center with 200 plus employees,” Vonck said. “Worst case, obviously, they don’t do anything at all and become an absentee landlord.”

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 non-committal about the future of the innovation centers.

In an email, Foxconn said:

Foxconn places are a part of the company’s long-term strategic plan for success in Wisconsin. Development of Foxconn Places around Wisconsin will be based on timing that positions the company and its Wisconsin employees for competitive success in support of the Wisconn Valley Science and Technology Park. To date permits have been approved for initial phase development of Foxconn Place Racine and agreements have been made with design and construction firms for Foxconn Place Green Bay.

The project continues to divide the state politically. Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, of Oshkosh, said politics collided with business.

“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,” Gordon said.

Even though Walker is no longer governor, 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.

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