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President Trump's Foxconn Promise, So Far Unfulfilled

Apr 30, 2019
Originally published on April 30, 2019 8:32 pm

Nearly two years ago, President Trump stood in the East Room of the White House and announced that Taiwan-based Foxconn — a major supplier of Apple technology — was going to build its first U.S. manufacturing facility, outside Milwaukee.

"This is a great day for American workers, and manufacturers, and for everyone who believes in the concept, and the label, 'Made in the USA,' " the president boasted.

But last summer, the agreement with Foxconn started to crack. The company first said it would reduce the size of the LCD display screens it would make, meaning fewer promised manufacturing jobs. And Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who had enticed the company with up to $3 billion in state tax credits, lost his reelection bid.

Then, over the winter, another shocker — the company said it might not build a manufacturing plant after all. Trump hurriedly intervened, and within days he got Foxconn to recommit to building the facility, he says.

The company says it is in early phases of construction of the advanced manufacturing plant. But the project has gone through so many changes that nearly everyone involved with it has more questions than answers. Wisconsin's new Democratic governor, Tony Evers, says he doubts Foxconn will ever create the 13,000 jobs that were promised by 2032.

"I truly believe that they believe at some point in time they'll have 13,000 employees here. I'm not sure about that. It's a smaller footprint. It's a different type of job," Evers told news reporters in Milwaukee last week. "But we'll see. I mean, if they create 1,000 jobs, that's 1,000 jobs we didn't have." He added that Foxconn now wants to change its agreement with the state.

That same day, Foxconn's U.S. director of strategic initiatives, Alan Yeung, tweeted that people should "Calm down" about the job target. At a Milwaukee awards ceremony for innovative technology, he stressed that the company is still committed to making Wisconsin a global technology hub.

"So, I think we need to take a deep breath and say tax credits are important. But we don't make decision solely based on tax credits," Yeung told reporters.

There are unconfirmed reports that Terry Gou, the Foxconn chief, is heading to the White House for meetings this week. Foxconn officials also say they are ramping up building the manufacturing plant in Racine County.

An existing Foxconn building on the new manufacturing property outside Milwaukee.
Chuck Quirmbach / WUWM

From the edge of the 1,200-acre Foxconn manufacturing property, an observer can see that the farms once on this land are gone. A lot of the ground is bare. Foxconn has put up only one building, what it calls a multipurpose structure. Earth movers, sometimes in groups of three or four, are hauling around piles of dirt.

Around the perimeter of the property, roads are being widened. Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave says he is happy with the pace of construction. "Look, you can see the transformation happening. And, it's really ... I think a great thing for us, " he said.

But some residents here remain skeptical that the jobs will ever come. Recently, Gou said he is scaling back his company duties as he runs for Taiwan's presidency. Resident Jeff Loken says that could be a problem. "He was the main pipeline for President Trump to get this agreement. So what happens now? Terry Gou isn't going to be in charge. Someone else is, presumably. Is he going to go along with the same thing?" Loken asked.

There's even uncertainty among Wisconsin business leaders who have supported Foxconn, like Tim Sheehy, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce president. Sheehy says it's time for some real benchmarks to be met. "That at some point this summer, the [manufacturing] building starts to go up, the capital equipment comes in and the jobs start to flow. Up until that point, everybody will be at some point of unease," he said.

It's that unease that has surrounded this ambitious plan from the very beginning.

Over the weekend, as Trump held a rally in Wisconsin, his campaign press secretary told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she doesn't know why the state's governor isn't more "optimistic and hopeful" that Foxconn will bring the promised 13,000 jobs to the state. She encouraged him to work with the president and company to "make sure those jobs come here."

But with up to $3 billion in state tax credits on the table, officials and residents across Wisconsin are still looking for the jobs that money was supposed to lure.

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President Trump has often touted a huge manufacturing project in Wisconsin, and it isn't working as planned. Taiwan-based Foxconn says it still wants to build video display screens at a plant near Milwaukee. But nearly everyone involved with the plan has more questions than answers. There are reports that Foxconn's chairman is meeting with Trump at the White House to discuss the project. Chuck Quirmbach of member station WUWM in Milwaukee has more.

CHUCK QUIRMBACH, BYLINE: It was nearly two years ago when President Trump stood in the East Room of the White House and announced that Foxconn, a major supplier of Apple technology, would build its first U.S. manufacturing facility outside of Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's a great day for American workers and manufacturing and for everyone who believes in the concept and the label, made in the USA.

QUIRMBACH: But last summer, the agreement with Foxconn started to unravel. First, the company said it would reduce the size of the LCD display screens it would make. Then Wisconsin's Republican Governor Scott Walker, who had enticed the company with up to $3 billion in state tax credits, lost his re-election bid. Then this past winter, another shocker - the company said it might not build a manufacturing plant after all. President Trump hurriedly intervened and within days, says he got Foxconn to recommit to building the facility. But Wisconsin's new Democratic Governor Tony Evers says he doubts Foxconn will ever create the jobs that were promised.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TONY EVERS: I truly believe that they believe that at some point in time, they will have 13,000 employees here. I'm not sure about that. It's a smaller footprint. It's a different type of job. But we'll see.

QUIRMBACH: Evers adds Foxconn now wants to change its agreement with the state. Last week, Foxconn's U.S. director of strategic initiatives, Alan Yeung, tweeted that people should, quote, "calm down about jobs." At an awards ceremony for innovative technology, he stressed that the company is still committed to making Wisconsin a global technology hub.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALAN YEUNG: So I think we need to take a deep breath and say, tax credit is important. But we don't make decisions solely based on tax credits.

QUIRMBACH: Foxconn officials say they're ramping up building the manufacturing plant in Racine County. Here at the edge of the 1,200-acre Foxconn manufacturing property, the farms once on this land are gone. Earth movers, sometimes in groups of three or four, have scraped the ground bare. But Foxconn has put up only one building. Racine County executive Jonathan Delagrave says he's not concerned.

JONATHAN DELAGRAVE: Look. You can see the transformation happening. And it's really, you know, I think, a great thing for us.

QUIRMBACH: But there is uncertainty across Wisconsin, especially among local residents following the recent announcement that Foxconn chairman Terry Gou is scaling back his involvement with the company and running for Taiwan's presidency. Even Wisconsin business leaders who have long-supported Foxconn, like Milwaukee commerce president Tim Sheehy, are now expressing some doubts. He's looking for benchmarks.

TIM SHEEHY: That at some point this summer, the building starts to go up, the capital equipment comes in and the jobs start to flow. Up until that point, I think everybody will be at some point of unease.

QUIRMBACH: It's that unease that now largely defines this ambitious plan. It's not just President Trump's embrace of the project that's at stake but up to $3 billion in tax credits and thousands and thousands of manufacturing jobs. For NPR News, I'm Chuck Quirmbach in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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