Last summer, Foxconn announced that it would buy buildings across Wisconsin and turn them into “innovation centers” as part of its record-breaking $4.5 billion tax subsidy agreement with the state. The initial agreement with Wisconsin had been for a large-screen LCD manufacturing facility, but by 2018, the company had downsized the factory to a far smaller type. That factory would employ only a tiny fraction of the 13,000 people Foxconn had promised to hire, and the company’s plan to make up the shortfall was to hire people to develop an as-yet undefined “AI 8K+5G ecosystem.” These employees would work on Foxconn’s main campus in Mount Pleasant as well as in the innovation centers scattered across the state, which were supposed to open early this year.
In March, The Verge visited Foxconn’s innovation centers across Wisconsin and found them mostly empty. Several dozen employees worked in its Milwaukee headquarters, but only minor renovations had been done to the building, half of which was rented out to a financial services firm. The owner of a building Foxconn had promised to buy in Eau Claire had canceled the contract after the deal stalled and Foxconn tried to renegotiate. The other Eau Claire innovation center also appeared to be stalled, and no one involved with remodeling it had received a contract or been paid. In Green Bay, the parts of the building Foxconn bought that weren’t vacant were rented out to unrelated businesses. The same went for the buildings Foxconn had bought in Racine.
Foxconn responded to the story by declaring that it would buy yet another building, this one in Madison, near the State Capitol.
At the event announcing the Madison project, Foxconn’s Alan Yeung said the innovation centers were “not empty,” which prompted laughter from the crowd. Yeung also said The Verge’s story contained “a lot of inaccuracies” and that the company would issue a correction soon. He did not say what those inaccuracies were, and Foxconn never issued a correction, nor has it responded to repeated requests to clarify Yeung’s statement.
One month after Yeung’s comments and promise of a correction, every innovation center in Wisconsin is still empty, according to public documents and sources involved with the innovation center process. Foxconn has yet to purchase the Madison building Yeung announced, according to Madison property records. No renovation or occupancy permits have been taken out for Foxconn’s Racine innovation center, though a permit has been taken out for work on the roof of another property Foxconn bought for “smart city” initiatives. There has been no activity in Foxconn’s Green Bay building, either.
No new permits have been taken out for the Eau Claire innovation center, and people who were supposed to work on it have yet to receive a contract or payment. If anything, the project appears to have taken a small step backward. When I visited in March, there were at least some sawhorses in the empty concrete space. When photographer Joshua Lott visited last week, even the sawhorses were gone.
The building Foxconn bought in downtown Milwaukee was supposed to be the flagship of its Wisconsin operation, its North American headquarters, as well as a co-working space and a showcase of the company’s technology. “Milwaukee is where we will transition our AI 8K+5G vision into reality,” Louis Woo, special assistant to Foxconn founder Terry Gou, said last summer when announcing the purchase of the building.
When The Verge checked in March, only $60,000 worth of renovations had been made, mostly to the ventilation system and to the floors the financial services firm Baird is now renting out. Since then, a permit for a $225,000 renovation has been taken out, but it’s not for Foxconn: it’s to remodel the first floor so that a local bank can move in.
Foxconn did not respond to request for comment about the status of its innovation centers.
Work on the factory itself appears to be slowly resuming after coming to halt this winter. The company announced contracts for road and utility work at the factory site, and on April 30th, Foxconn received conditional state approval to begin work on the factory’s foundation, according to documents obtained through an open records request. But before it begins work, Foxconn needs to submit a report showing that the ground at the site can support the weight the company says it can. Previously, experts told The Verge that they doubt the compressed gravel pad currently in place at the factory site can support an LCD manufacturing facility.
Wisconsin’s Department of Safety and Professional Services did not provide Foxconn’s actual building plans to The Verge because the company has labeled them a trade secret. A spokesperson said the department will follow up with Foxconn to determine the company’s basis for marking them confidential before deciding whether they can be made public.
Even if Foxconn does build an LCD facility, many questions remain. The company’s current plan is to build a far smaller factory than it initially promised, one that will employ 1,500 people rather than over 10,000. The shortfall leaves both Foxconn and the state in a tricky position. Given the slower pace of hiring, it may be difficult for Foxconn to reach the hiring quotas needed to receive state subsidies. State and local governments, meanwhile, have been building infrastructure and acquiring land based on the original, far more ambitious plan. Foxconn insists it will hire 13,000 people — though, at this point, the company’s assurances feel as empty as its innovation centers.