Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Could Milwaukee Build A Foxconn City?

Committee explores annexing portion of Racine County for a satellite city.

By - Dec 13th, 2017 04:23 pm
Foxconn Site Plan. Image from SEWRPC.

Foxconn Site Plan. Image from SEWRPC.

“What is the ability of the City of Milwaukee to annex real estate in another county? I thought the answer would be a shrug and a ‘that can’t happen.’ Turns out, that can happen!”

Those were the exuberant words of Alderman Robert Bauman as he explained to members of the city’s Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee how the city might construct a satellite city in Racine County to house workers for the proposed 20-million square feet Foxconn factory campus.

The alderman is exploring the idea as an alternative to finding a way to transport potentially thousands of city residents to the south Racine County facility every day. The transit advocate is concerned that there hasn’t been public discussion about how to transport city residents to the facility or about building workforce housing near the facility. He pegs the subsidy amount for Foxconn as well in excess of the $3 billion figure usually used,  yet he notes nothing is being discussed for transportation beyond adding a lane to Interstate 94.

Bauman had asked the City Attorney’s office to investigate the feasibility of establishing a satellite city incorporated as part of Milwaukee. Jeremy McKenzie told the committee “when I first got the assignment I thought there is probably no way to do this.” The assistant city attorney detailed six conditions that would need to be satisfied to make an annexation happen for land that wasn’t contiguous with the city.

  1. The land would have to be lying near, but not necessarily contiguous with the city.
  2. The land to be annexed must be owned by the city.
  3. The land must be in a town, and not a village, city or other incorporated entity.
  4. The town board must approve a resolution approving the annexation.
  5. The Racine County Board of Supervisors would need to approve the annexation.
  6. A boundary agreement governing the specific borders would need to be entered into by the city.

Bauman has zeroed in on the Town of Yorkville for study. The town is immediately west of the proposed Foxconn site, located just across Interstate 94. He says the city has a role to play because it’s unlikely Mt. Pleasant or Yorkville are going to construct affordable housing.

“Personally I would prefer the investment in transit to get our people there and back” says the alderman, but short of that he thinks the city should explore annexing the land to provide ready access to well-paying jobs for impoverished city residents. Should the annexation prove too complex, the city could still enter into a partnership through the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee with a private developer to construct affordable housing in the area and provide opportunity to current city residents.

The idea is not without precedent. Bauman’s idea stems from former Mayor Frank Zeidler‘s push to establish satellite cities as a means of creating affordable housing and defending against a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Although Zeidler, who served from 1948 to 1960, was able to annex thousands of acres during his time in office, he was unable to establish satellite cities following staunch suburban opposition.

How likely is Bauman’s version of the idea to happen? Not very, but it helps elevate the looming issue of transporting thousands of workers to Racine County and the Foxconn facility. Even Gov. Scott Walker, who negotiated the Foxconn deal, seems concerned about the matter. The state has recently begun an advertising campaign in Illinois to attempt to attract new residents.

The reality of the situation isn’t likely to be lost on Foxconn. The company, which operates even larger plants in Asia, is likely to explore building their own “smart city” as part of the development. To accommodate thousands of workers and their families on the proposed campus, Foxconn would need to build housing at a density level seen on Milwaukee’s East Side, if not higher. The appetite for the formerly small towns to engage in such development is unclear.

Department of City Development Deputy Commissioner Martha Brown didn’t outright dismiss Bauman’s idea, but said her office prefers to see the workers live in Milwaukee and bring their earnings back to the city.

Amtrak to the Rescue?

One opportunity to establish a mass transit link to the area could come through an existing transit line. Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service currently operates on tracks that bisect a portion of the 1,000-plus acre Foxconn site. Fourteen trains a day currently cross the site, seven from Illinois and seven from downtown Milwaukee. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is finalizing a study that would allow that number to increase to 20 daily.

Representatives of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission were at the city ZND committee meeting and Bauman noted that WisDOT “almost (has) a shovel-ready program to utilize existing infrastructure, add three round trips a day, 10 total.” He then asked SEWRPC Deputy Director Kevin Muhs “Has anyone mentioned this?” Muhs told the alderman “it’s been mentioned, but not by those authorized to make those decisions.” SEWRPC will help study and recommend transportation options for the plant, but it will ultimately be up to elected officials and Foxconn to fund any transportation plan.

Although it’s undoubtedly complex, the Hiawatha alternative seems more reasonable than the city constructing a satellite neighborhood. It would avoid further highway congestion, leverage an existing rail line and passenger service and allow the Milwaukee County Transit System to funnel riders towards the existing Milwaukee Intermodal Station in downtown Milwaukee.

Would the Governor support such a measure? Bauman notes that Walker’s powerful lieutenant, the Department of Administration Secretary Scott Neitzel, in a conversation with the alderman characterized transit as “a government solution” to the workforce problem. Bauman told the committee “You spend $3 billion on attracting a private company and you think transit is a government solution?” Bauman said Neitzel discussed a strategy involving privately-operated vans transporting people to the complex.

Expect more debate on this issue until the state endorses a solution.

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11 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Could Milwaukee Build A Foxconn City?”

  1. Terry says:

    Hopefully not! Instead we should dump Walker and elect a real Governor who will nix this massive corporate welfare for a foreign company paid for by Wisconsin taxpayer’s immediately!
    Dump Walker 2018!

  2. Paul M. says:

    While the annexation idea is pretty ridiculous and rife with complications, I do admire Bauman for calling out the hypocrisy of the governor’s lackey. They come up with this huge, unprecedented giveaway to a private company and then deride (pardon the pun) transit as a government solution. That is just rich.

    I like the idea of adding Amtrak service/capacity, but the real solution is probably going to be a mix of things. Some workers will drive and see the cost as worth it for a higher paying job (hopefully). Some will carpool. Some will use a private van service if that’s provided. Others might use MCTS if there’s a way to add a reverse flyer-type route. Probably some combination of all these things. Plus…some residents will move down to the southern fringe of the city, to Oak Creek/Franklin, and maybe even to Racine if they are mobile and can find workable housing. There may not be a one size fits all solution.

    That said, imagine if, decades ago, the region could have mustered the political will and the cooperation to build a regional transit system.

  3. iced tea says:

    I guess nobody really owns a definitive interpretation of Frank Zeidler’s efforts.

    It’s not that I’m totally speechless about the effort, I just feel a quiet, collective patting on a long-serving alderperson’s head with the hope that local democracy will grow out of putting forks in light sockets someday.

  4. Matt says:

    Maybe we should make sure we’re not annexing a bunch of property so Foxconn can house “independent contractors” in a company town of oppressed workers before we start sucking up to these guys.

  5. TransitRider says:

    The City of Milwaukee already spans 3 counties. There are small pieces of the City in both Washington and Waukesha Counties.

  6. GRNDPAKWH says:

    Illinois already has their mass transit in place to bring people to Foxconn it is call the Metra which now stops in Kenosha, but can easily continue to Racine along the Union Pacific tracks. The fare is affordable, unlike Amtrak, so the low wage earners at Foxconn would be able to earn their dollars here and return to Chicago and spend the money.

  7. Rita says:

    And jwhen Foxcomm folds up and leaves,,who is stuck with the leftover bills?

  8. Mohammed says:

    GRND, the UP-North could fairly easily be brought up to Racine assuming Wisconsin overturns a ban on Regional Transit Authorities (RTA). That would be one step towards a K-R-M line which needs to happen already. The problem of course is that the UP-N doesn’t operate on the same tracks as the Amtrak. There would be no rail connection between Amtrak and (near) Downtown Racine. To make this work, there would be to be a fleet of buses going between the DT Transit Center and the campus. Of course, WI, Racine County, and Foxconn have shown no willingness to make this happen.

    I think the increased number of Amtrak trains is a great start but it is NOT a solution. For one, the ticket is currently $22 RT and requires getting to the Intermodal and then getting to Foxconn campus from Sturtevant. The only way this works is if there is a reduced fare and either a free shuttle or a transfer card. Top line speed will also need to be increased to 110 MPH to realistically make this happen.

  9. MidnightSon says:

    I consider myself a person of moderate intelligence but this idea baffles me.

    Is the basis for it the belief that (a) Racine County and the towns it comprises won’t want to or be able to develop property for the homes of tax-paying workers, but (b) would regard ceding land to Milwaukee a better option?

  10. pg1946 says:

    Given the governor and legislature we have, the idea of annexation would seem to be a non-starter, Also, Racine County would, in all probably, oppose and block any annexation: Then ther’s transit: Additional transit service could theoretically come through Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs), which do not require a locomotive and, despite the name, can run with a single unit–a kind of rail bus–to provide commuter service to the proposed Foxconn site at a lower fare than Amtrak charges (currently $12.00 without discounts). Here, again, however, the political situation, both in Madison and in Washington, would make this impossible. Our governor, whose campaign expenses have been paid for by the oil-rich Koch brothers and the Wisconsin Club for Growth, views any form of government-subsidized mass transit as an anathema, as seen in his scuttling the extension of Metra commuter rail into Wisconsin (ostensibly because the state would have to come up with $1 million–!), and the drastic reductions in state subsidies to the MCTS. Amtrak’s financial support from the Congress is in doubt. Annexation of land close to Foxconn is a nice idea, but, under current and foreseeable poligtical circumstances, it is a pipe dream

  11. Tweed says:

    You do know who far east the Metra tracks are of the FoxxConn property right?

    The easiest and most fiscally responsible thing to do is an improved Sturtevant Hiawatha Station with a 2.5 mile shuttle to the FC Plant. Heck…maybe Amtrack could even relocate the station back to its original location at Hwy 11.

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