Foxconn’s Wisconsin play is a huge deal in many ways, but it’s a downright transformation for its ground zero.
His front lawn resembles a meadow, fronted by a handwritten sign on cardboard nailed to a tree: “Please Keep Out!! Nothing for Sale!!” The grass, knee-high and topped with wheat-like golden tips, sways in the wind. But don’t expect Sean McFarlane to mow.
“There’s no point in doing it now,” says the 35-year-old. “It’s going to be bulldozed soon.” The two-story gray house, built in the 1890s, and the much bigger horse barn behind it will meet the same fate as the neighbors’ places. An excavator will sink its claws into the roof first and work its way down. “Takes an afternoon, five to six hours,” he says. “The whole house is gone, and they fill in the hole, and it looks like nothing was ever there.”
McFarlane knows because he’s seen the process over and over since spring, when the village of Mount Pleasant began buying out the rural properties around here at a 40-percent markup to make way for a mega-factory for Foxconn Technology Group, one of the world’s largest companies with headquarters in Taiwan and operations throughout Asia, Europe, Latin America and, soon, southeastern Wisconsin.
The site – McFarlane’s property sits directly beside it, soon to become part of it – could be mistaken for a desert, minus the cacti. It’s brown and vast, 1,200 acres of nothingness that used to be mostly farmland and will become North America’s first factory making liquid crystal displays for flat-screen televisions and other devices. Foxconn believes the $10 billion complex will eventually bring 13,000 workers to Mount Pleasant, population 26,000.
The facility currently under construction – greased by up to $3 billion in investment from the state – will be the first of three planned phases, with smaller Foxconn white-collar offshoots sprouting in Downtown Milwaukee, Green Bay and Eau Claire. Mount Pleasant’s jobs will arrive in earnest with the plant’s opening, expected in 2020.
At the site, the heated arguments, claims and counterclaims the project has generated from everyone from local activists to the president about environmental impacts, human rights abuses, corporate welfare and economic development seem far away. Here, men wear hard hats and steel-toed boots. Conversations revolve around sewers and pipes and asphalt.
Orchestrating this chaotic symphony for Mount Pleasant is Claude Lois, hired by the village about a year ago as Foxconn project manager. “I don’t look at any political thing,” says Lois. “I look at what’s best for the village, making sure that whatever agreements we come to not only make sense for the development but more importantly for the village.”
Of all the entities involved in the sprawling, first-of-its-kind project, Mount Pleasant could be affected most, and is by far the smallest. If Foxconn booms, and promises are kept, the ripple effect to its tax base and economy will be monumental. It will add $1.4 billion in new tax base to a village with a current base of $2.5 billion, a 56 percent spike. If the project fails, the village will be mud-faced, having invested $285 million (along with Racine County) and displaced so many longtime residents.
Big Promises, Big Questions
Foxconn’s (hopefully) 13,000 jobs come with (definitely) significant costs.
Already there are concerns about crime in what will essentially be an overnight factory town hosting a global company, with specific worries about drug dealing and human trafficking. The village plans to spend $100 million in tax revenue from Foxconn to beef up police and fire services, and Lois says discussions are underway for additional public safety facilities.
Lois is a small-town guy. He was born and raised in Burlington, the nearby community of 10,000 people, and lived there his entire adult life. He was a businessman, then served as mayor from 2000 to 2008, winning respect for his oversight of the redevelopment of the city’s downtown riverfront district. Old buildings past their relevance got razed. New buildings sprouted in their place. Most recently, he worked as a division administrator for the state Department of Revenue, a job that gave him a crash course in tax incremental financing, a tool being used liberally to juice the Foxconn development.
He’s the first to acknowledge that what he’s doing now lives in a different solar system than anything he did previously. “I’ve been involved in a lot of development projects,” he says, “but you just have to take that and times it by a hundred.”
The firm he works for, Kapur, signed a contract with the village for $20,000 a month in consulting fees. Lois says not all of that money goes to him but won’t say how much does.
Lois has dealt with many residents who have lost or are losing homes. He worked with village officials, at the request of a homeowner being displaced, to suggest to Foxconn a carve-out in the project to preserve a bur oak tree kitty-corner from McFarlane’s house that’s believed to be more than 300 years old – nearly twice the age of Wisconsin. The owner of that property, George Creuziger, says he and his father farmed around the tree and its seven or so spawn that dot his fields. Even though the family’s leaving, he wants the tree to remain.
Lois says that, despite loud protests, most residents have eventually accepted the sacrifices. “You know, you’ve got to let them vent,” he says. “It’s a monumental change for a number of these folks. I get that. But how do we make it as painless as possible?”
McFarlane’s representative of that. He rails against his family being forced out of the house he grew up in, one he believed was the “forever house” for his family, but in the next breath talks about his mother buying separate houses for herself and her two sons with the proceeds from the sale. “Without Foxconn she wouldn’t have been able to buy those houses,” he says.
And then there are the logistical challenges required of building a sudden city capable of supporting the daily needs of thousands of employees.
Lois joined others from Mount Pleasant and Racine County on a trip to Osaka, Japan, home to Foxconn’s second-largest existing plant, in September 2017 for a weeklong immersion in how the company operates. “I think the trip over there was instrumental in providing a number of us confidence and said to us, ‘You know, this is real,’” he says. “These guys are for real. And it’s a very class operation.”
One revelation from the trip: tunnels. Lois says he was surprised to learn of one company strategy – running tunnels under its facilities, the better to give safe exit ramps in the event of emergencies. Will tunnels run throughout the site here? “I wouldn’t be surprised if it does come through,” he says. “They’re working with our police and fire to make sure it makes sense here.”
Lois spends his days in meetings without end – our 20-minute interview was interrupted five minutes in by an aide who informed him his next person was waiting – negotiating contracts for infrastructure needs and trying to keep everyone happy: Foxconn officials, Mount Pleasant officials, state officials and village residents.
The village didn’t do itself many favors when its board, in early June, voted to declare a swath of land needed for the next phase of Foxconn development “blighted,” a legal distinction that gives the village leverage to take over property from unwilling homeowners by eminent domain. It means more residents will be getting letters like the one McFarlane got in July notifying him the house, owned by his mother, was now in Mount Pleasant’s hands. “Now that the Village owns the property, you have become a tenant of the Village,” it says.
Lois notes that the job has him feeling like he’s getting pulled in 15 directions at the same time, working through the dizzying reams of documents and red tape required to keep the project rolling.
“There’s only one of me, and we haven’t figured out how to fix that,” he says, pausing before the next word: “Yet.”