“The eighth wonder of the world,” President Trump proclaimed when he kicked off construction with a golden shovel full of dirt.
Or perhaps not. As solid as the walls to the new factory might seem, the company behind them — Taiwan-based electronics giant Foxconn — has repeatedly backtracked on ambitious visions that attracted billions of dollars in state incentives. Foxconn assures that it will meet the original employment target for the project, but Gov. Tony Evers (D) has said he doesn’t think vows to hire thousands of new workers will ever be fulfilled. And experts maintain the entire strategy makes little sense.
Few places in America have more riding on which way the winds ultimately blow. Long a political bellwether — the surrounding county of Racine voted for President Barack Obama twice before flipping to Trump — this area is now an economic one, too.
The question of whether the Foxconn factory will be a boon or a bust has split the community, with neighbors, friends and relatives divided. The fault lines run less between supporters and opponents than between true believers and reluctant skeptics. Just about everyone wants Foxconn to succeed, but not everyone is convinced it will.
“This area desperately needs the investment. There’s nothing here anymore,” said Tom Johnston, a 54-year-old veteran of the area’s once-vaunted manufacturing sector.
Yet Johnston, who owns an upscale gift shop on a struggling Main Street in the city of Racine, has little faith that Foxconn will bring salvation: “I hope to God it happens, but I think it’s all a crock.”
Directly across the street, Ken Brown has no such doubts. He has lived here for decades and has seen his once-prosperous community pummeled as factories fled, stores shuttered and unemployment spiked. Foxconn, he said, will change all of that.
“It used to be that one of the best places in America to be born was Racine, Wisconsin,” said Brown, who owns an eyewear shop and is active in local Republican politics. “I expect that to be true again.”
It was that promise of a return to greatness that has propelled the project since its inception — and attracted Trump’s enthusiastic support.
“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,’ ” Trump told reporters at the official unveiling of the project in the East Room of the White House in July 2017.
A year later, he was on site in Wisconsin for the groundbreaking, hailing a factory that he said would restore “America’s industrial might.”
The lofty rhetoric reflected the grand scale of Foxconn’s plans, which were negotiated under former governor Scott Walker (R). The company would create 13,000 jobs and pay its workers $53,000 a year, plus benefits, to work at a $10 billion facility covering 20 million square feet. The factory would do something that no other company has dared attempt: produce state-of-the-art, giant LCD screens in the United States.
In video promotions, Foxconn showcased what appeared to be an entire city’s worth of futuristic, Silicon Valley-esque glitz rising from the flatlands of southeast Wisconsin.
The vision was alluring enough to win the company over $4 billion in tax and other incentives from the state and local governments, including vital infrastructure work — the largest such package ever given to a foreign firm in U.S. history. (The previous record was $1.65 billion.)
Yet, almost from the start, Foxconn’s behavior has raised questions about whether it intends to follow through.
Plans to produce giant screens were swapped with smaller ones. At one point, the company appeared to scrap the factory idea altogether before a phone call from Trump prompted another abrupt pivot. All along, hiring has lagged far behind what was forecast.
“Every couple of months there’s been a different plan,” said Steven Deller, an economist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “First it was 13,000 jobs. Now it might be 1,000 jobs. They’ve really scaled back on what they plan to do.”
Even the start of construction has raised doubts rather than allay them, he said. The structure now emerging bears little resemblance to the model of 21st-century, high-tech manufacturing that was promised.
“This was supposed to be the future,” he said, “but it just looks like a big warehouse.”
In an emailed response, Foxconn said it remains committed to its original hiring and investment pledges while acknowledging that some plans have shifted.
The company said it intends to begin producing technology in the 1-million-square-foot facility now under construction by late next year. But it is vague about its exact plans for the rest of the 20-million-square-foot site, saying its development is “a process that will be carried out over a number of years.”
“This is a complex project and while timelines have been adjusted to address a range of internal and external factors, Foxconn has never wavered from our commitment to our contract with the State of Wisconsin and the creation of 13,000 jobs as part of our broader effort to make the Badger state a global technology hub,” the company said.
But Deller said that Foxconn’s original plans always lacked grounding in economic reality: The factory was too far from its supply chains, and the promised number of jobs was far too high in the age of automation.
“They were promising more than they could deliver,” he said.
Johnston, the gift shop owner, said he had that instinct the moment he heard about the project.
His father was a lifelong machinist, and he had worked in factory management and sales. He wanted to believe that Racine could get back to the manufacturing glory days of the 1970s when, he said, “this whole city smelled like metal.”
But the Foxconn project always struck him as a fantasy. “We don’t make electronic anything in the United States,” he said.
To backers, changing that is the point.
Racine — wedged between Milwaukee and Chicago along the shores of Lake Michigan — was once a hub of innovation, responsible for inventions ranging from the garbage disposal to the panoramic camera. Foxconn gives the community the opportunity to get back to that, said Jonathan Delagrave, Racine county executive.
“We really have a chance to redefine ourselves,” Delagrave said. “I think we’re going to be celebrating next summer the return of advanced manufacturing in the United States, and doing it right here in Racine County. It can’t be overstated enough that that’s a really big deal.”
Delagrave was a central figure in the quest to lure Foxconn to Racine, and he has remained resolutely behind the company even as plans have shifted and hiring schedules have slipped. The company’s willingness to adjust, he said, is a virtue, not a vice.
“If the economy changes and they can’t change with the economy, that’s going to make the project a little more difficult,” he said.
The gamble on Foxconn has come with a cost. Both the county and the village of Mount Pleasant, where the plant will be located, have had their credit ratings downgraded as they borrow money to finance road, sewer and other infrastructure improvements.
That, coupled with the company’s shifting stance, has some local officials worried that the community hasn’t adequately prepared for what happens if Foxconn fails to deliver.
“The more you invest in anything, the more exposure you have,” said Nick Demske, a county supervisor. “I don’t mean to be a doomsday prophesier. I just want us to be thinking about contingency plans.”
For many, it’s more appealing to think of the upside. Racine was one of the last places in America to recover from the last recession. The unemployment rate here, about 4.4 percent, remains higher than most of the state, and even those with jobs say their lives feel untouched by the longest economic expansion in the nation’s history.
“Every month it’s, ‘Do I pay my electric bill this month or do I pay my phone bill?’ ” said Minisha Honeycutt, who supports herself and her two children on the $11 an hour she makes working part time as a nursing assistant.
As she waited for a bus on Main Street, with the blue waters of Lake Michigan shimmering in the distance, she allowed herself to dream of a day when the factory opens and her life changes for the better.
“I don’t want to be in this situation,” the 34-year-old said. “And if Foxconn comes and gives me a chance, I won’t be.”