Could Foxconn Build Plants Elsewhere in Wisconsin?
Wisconsin Valley director hints at possibility of fulfilling 13,000 jobs pledge at sites outside of Racine and Milwaukee.
Despite the fact that giant earth-moving equipment is reshaping hundreds of acres of land for a proposed electronics manufacturing facility, Foxconn might have aspirations beyond just southern Racine County.
Alan Yeung, Director of U.S. Strategic Initiatives for the Taiwanese-electronics manufacturer, hinted at the possibility the company might build elsewhere in Wisconsin during a Monday afternoon meeting of the Greater Milwaukee Committee. Providing an update on the company’s plans, Yeung said: “When we made a decision to invest in Wisconsin and actually announced the fact that we would invest $10 billion in Racine County to open a manufacturing site a lot has changed. In fact a lot of the plans we have put together have been modified and updated, some of those we don’t actually know if they are true anymore, but what has not changed is our commitment to community.”
In an interview after the speech, Yeung declined to break down the percentage of jobs that would be in Racine County, but said the firm’s commitment includes the majority of the jobs within the project zone with other jobs outside of Racine County benefiting the zone.
“We are looking at the entire state of Wisconsin as a possibility,” said Yeung. A number of large manufacturing sites are available within an hour drive of southern Racine County. The former 4.8 million-square-foot General Motors factory in Janesville was recently sold to Commercial Development Company who will demolish the plant and redevelop the site. The former Tower Automotive site in Milwaukee, now known as Century City, could be another site for Foxconn. The City of Milwaukee has invested millions in the site to get it ready for new tenants.
The company could also end up at General Mitchell International Airport. Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele told Urban Milwaukee when the Foxconn deal was announced that the county was working out logistics for Foxconn to lease space at the airport for final assembly.
The Foxconn Factory Worker
Speaking at a panel discussion about the future of General Mitchell International Airport, Yeung told the audience that employees at the Racine County campus, known as Wisconn Valley Science and Technology Park, will include a white-collar workforce. “Many of the workers down there will no longer be your old-fashioned blue-collar workers, many of them will be knowledge workers, developers, engineers, professionals and many of them will be flying in and out of the region,” said Yeung.
As part of the agreement with the state for an approximately $3 billion financing package, Yeung notes the average salary is set to be $53,875. Including other subsidies, the public cost of the project could exceed $4.1 billion. Yeung said the company will have an annual payroll in excess of $700 million once they reach full capacity.
“From the very beginning we are bringing the best and latest technology to Wisconsin,” said Yeung regarding Foxconn’s plans for what it will make at the site. He anticipates future work will involve a lot of robots. Workers at the plant will be “capable well-trained technicians that can work with people and with robots… that’s typically not people that are untrained or semi-trained to lift boxes or just take orders, where you can do it with a kiosk or robotic arms.”
The company is currently leasing a facility in Mount Pleasant for “experimental manufacturing” to help determine what it will build and how at the Racine County campus.
Getting Workers to Wisconn Valley
Transportation remains a major logistical question for Foxconn’s plans.
Yeung said the company hasn’t eliminated any options in terms of transportation for future employees to the Wisconn Valley site, including shuttle or rail options. He referenced the private shuttle buses operated from San Francisco to Silicon Valley to connect people who live in the city to suburban office jobs at tech companies in far-flung suburbs. “It’s a bit too early for us to say ‘yep, let’s go with that and let’s not fund that one.’ We would love to have a chance to talk with the City of Milwaukee and sit down to talk about what’s sensible and economical.”
The state received a $160 million grant from the federal government for an additional lane along Interstate 94 last week, but had requested $246 million. Governor Scott Walker pledged that the $86 million shortfall won’t delay the project, work will still be done by 2021. The deficit will be covered by cash balances from transportation revenue bonds according to Walker spokesperson Tom Evenson. Foxconn would like to eventually develop the new lanes as autonomous vehicle lanes said Yeung.
Milwaukee Alderman Robert Bauman has held repeated hearings on the potential of connecting Milwaukeeans with jobs at Foxconn, including the potential of bus or rail service to the campus.
But Yeung’s comments on the Wisconn Valley workforce indicate that there might not be many jobs for the unemployed or underemployed city residents Bauman is seeking to serve. However, project proponents have repeatedly said that creating jobs at Foxconn will create job openings for lower-skilled jobs at places like Amazon’s 1.5-million-square-foot Kenosha warehouse.
Will Foxconn be the catalyst to finally create a regional transit authority to connect city residents with suburban jobs in Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee counties?
Foxconn and The Airport
Yeung, a UW-Madison graduate, estimates that Foxconn will have a positive impact on passenger and cargo travel out of Milwaukee’s airport. But he said unlike some large consulting firms, the company’s model doesn’t rely on employees flying in on Monday and flying out on Friday. Employees will regularly connect out of the airport to the different vendors in the company’s international supply chain, but plenty of people will come in as well. “We would expect a lot of visitors coming to Wisconsin either for business or pleasure,” said Yeung.
The company will also use the airport for a sizable portion its freight needs. Yeung said with the shrinking size of so many technology devices air freight is a viable shipping option.
County Executive Chris Abele, a proponent of the Foxconn deal, said that with or without the firm the county is moving forward on improving the airport. Plans are moving forward to convert Terminal E into an international terminal, allowing for expanded service and integration international flights with the main facility. The county is also advancing plans to centralize security at the airport, which will create a more efficient, single entry point that will allow fliers to easily go between terminals. He touted the development potential the airport has with the former 440 National Air Wing site being available for a large freight user.
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