Last April, The Verge reported that the Foxconn “innovation centers” scattered around Wisconsin were largely empty and that renovations were stalled. Several days after that article published, Foxconn held a press conference to announce that it had bought yet another building and told reporters that The Verge’s reporting was incorrect.
Specifically, Foxconn’s Alan Yeung said The Verge’s story had “a lot of inaccuracies, and we will actually make a correction, and we will make a statement about that.”
“I can assure you that they are not empty,” Yeung said. “But we also don’t want people to climb up on trees and look over to make sure we have occupancy.” (For the record: no one ever climbed on trees. We simply looked in the window.)
Yeung went on. “We don’t actually make an effort to acquire buildings to leave them empty. We do have a plan and we actually will make sure the building is adequate and well-equipped before we move people in,” he said. ”So you will see a lot more coming in the next months, the next year or so,” Yeung said.
“I can assure you it will not be empty and they’re not empty right now,” he added.
“They’re not empty right now” was a curious way to describe buildings that looked like this in April 2019:
Yeung made those comments on April 12th, 2019. It is now April 12th, 2020, making it exactly one year since Foxconn promised a statement or correction regarding The Verge’s report of empty buildings in Wisconsin. That statement or correction has never arrived.
And the buildings are still empty.
Here’s another photo of Foxconn’s innovation center in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, taken this past Friday:
Foxconn originally promised to turn two buildings in Eau Claire into office space and research facilities. It never purchased one of the buildings and has taken out no substantive building permits for the other, the glass-fronted downtown building pictured above.
Matt Jewell, an engineering professor at the nearby University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, from which Foxconn was supposed to recruit, said there has been “no visible activity whatsoever” at the property. Foxconn was also absent at the school’s career fair this February.
The Green Bay innovation center has also made no progress. In October 2019, WPR reported that the projects appeared to be on hold. Several days later, Foxconn said it still planned to develop the innovation centers, and the company appeared to restart at least some of the projects, selecting contractors to renovate a floor of its Green Bay building. At the time, the company said it planned to renovate 4,800 square feet of office space to host company events and recruitment drives. It had originally planned to have 200 employees working in a 16,000-square-foot space.
According to Kevin Vonck, the development director for Green Bay, Foxconn submitted plans toward the end of 2019 for an even smaller space: 3,500 square feet of office space for 49 people. But no permits have been taken out, and construction has yet to begin.
“I have not heard anything from the Foxconn team recently,” said Wendy Townsend, project manager at the Green Bay Department of Community and Economic Development. “They tend to be on the quieter side.”
A search of records for Foxconn’s property in Madison turned up no building permits, and other tenants of the building have not seen any Foxconn employees.
The company got a permit to remodel 1,451 square feet in its Racine building toward the end of last year, but it’s unclear whether any construction has occurred. (Foxconn originally said it planned to remodel 20,000 square feet and open in January 2019.) Racine and Madison officials did not respond to a request for updates on the properties.
At Foxconn’s Milwaukee headquarters, a seven-story downtown building that was supposed to also house an innovation center, the most significant permits the company has applied for are to renovate elevators and an exit door. In January, Ixonia Bank moved into the building’s first floor.
Foxconn has also continued to lease out its Green Bay building to other businesses, Vonck said. Its Madison and Racine innovation centers are still occupied by the banks that were there before Foxconn purchased the buildings.
A former Foxconn employee told The Verge that the company could never quite figure out what to do with the innovation centers. “They were a constant pivot,” he said. At one point, the company planned to turn them into WeWork-style co-working spaces. But he said the leases were also one of the few revenue-generating projects Foxconn had in Wisconsin.
“The entire time I was at Foxconn, the only thing that was profitable were those spaces where we had leasing tenants. Nothing else brought in profit, or revenue,” he said. “For the ones that were completely empty like in Eau Claire, obviously we didn’t bring anything in. That was a loss.”
The main Foxconn project — the factory in Mount Pleasant — appears to be moving forward, albeit at a much smaller scale than the massive Generation 10.5 LCD fabrication plant originally promised and specified in the company’s contract with the state.
Earlier this month, the company submitted a project report to the state claiming it now employs more than 550 people, enough to qualify for lucrative subsidies. (Most were hired at the end of last year.) And although no LCD fabrication equipment has been reported as arriving at the factory, Foxconn has announced a giant glass dome that will house a data center, along with deals to make robotic coffee kiosks and alarm system components in what’s been described as a “high-mix, low-to-medium volume” manufacturing strategy. And last week, Foxconn and Medtronic announced plans to build ventilators at the factory within four to six weeks.
But it’s unclear whether Foxconn will receive any subsidies. The state has warned Foxconn repeatedly that because it is building a far different type of factory than what was originally described in the contract and had brought in a Foxconn subsidiary not originally part of the deal, the contract would have to be revised. Foxconn has refused to revisit the contract. It’s also worth noting that last year, Foxconn claimed to have employed 189 full-time workers, but a subsequent audit found only 113 met the criteria in the contract.
In a statement, Missy Hughes, the CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation overseeing the deal, told The Verge that Foxconn’s report will be audited and reviewed and that negotiations over the contract are ongoing. “Our conversations with Foxconn about aligning the contract with the project continue — it is WEDC’s objective to do so in order to support the project,” Hughes said.
The factory is set to open in May. Foxconn has deemed construction “essential,” and work continues even under Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order. It is unclear exactly what the factory will produce when it becomes operational.
Foxconn did not respond to a request for comment.