Oscar Mayer exterior (copy)

Mayor Paul Soglin recommended the former Oscar Mayer site and two other locations in the city as possible options for a Foxconn manufacturing facility.  

 
PHOTO BY BEN BREWER

Mayor Paul Soglin is recommending three sites, including the Oscar Mayer property, for the Taiwanese electronics company Foxconn to consider as it contemplates expanding in Dane County.

Soglin said he was surprised when the local regional business group Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP) called him July 27 about possible sites for the electronics giant. Foxconn is primarily looking for a stretch of underdeveloped land, known as a greenfield site.

However, the mayor said he was not interested in competing with financial incentives to lure the company to the city in what he called a “race to the bottom.” Soglin also said he has “absolutely no intention” of waiving any environmental regulations if Foxconn selects a site in Madison.

“Are we interested in a Foxconn facility in Madison? Yes, we are,” Soglin said at a press conference Thursday. “Are we going to lower any of our standards be they economic or environmental? No, we are not.”

Soglin said he would consider creating a tax incremental financing district if Foxconn is interested in a Madison location.

Foxconn, known for manufacturing iPhones, is also building a separate plant in the southeastern corner of the state. The company plans to invest $10 billion in the plant, which is expected to employ between 3,000 and 13,000 people.

State lawmakers are hearing public testimony Thursday on a $3 billion incentive package for the company.

The 72-acre Oscar Mayer plant on the city’s north side, a mainstay for nearly 100 years, closed at the end of July — one of seven Kraft Heinz factories that shuttered.

Though the site is not exactly what Foxconn is looking for, Soglin said it has potential due to its proximity to the airport, interstate highways and public transportation, in addition to adequate sources of power and water. He also said choosing an urban site is part of the need to rethink where jobs are located and how farmland is used.

“Putting in a facility that employs that many people right in the heart of all of these resources, all those roads, the rail, the airport, the interstate, the homes, that makes sense rather than chewing up 40, 80, 100 acres of farmland,” Soglin said.

Ald. Larry Palm, District 12, represents the neighborhood that includes the Oscar Mayer site and expressed hesitation over the possibility of it being the next Foxconn site. He supports the reuse of the land but is also skeptical of being too willing to take the first offer for the now-vacant site.

“Is this a red herring to somehow convince the Madison Dane County community that Foxconn can be great for everyone?” Palm asked.

A strategic committee, approved by the City Council in June, will study the Oscar Mayer campus. The committee’s work will inform future planning of the site including land uses, zoning and transportation connections such as new public streets and bicycle and transit connections.

Soglin declined to disclose the other two properties in Madison that Foxconn could be eyeing but said they are greenfield sites on the edges of the city. Palm said in a blog post he envisioned multiple employers, emerging businesses and food incubation at the Oscar Mayer site instead of one business.

“A Foxconn assembly plant at this site would be similar to what we traditionally had on the site. It also may be no more community engaging than when Oscar Mayer was on the site,” Palm said, while noting it is too early to tell.

Fitchburg also recommends sites

The local regional business group MadREP sent an email July 26 to its partners seeking available locations for a 700,000-square-foot manufacturing plant that would employ as many as 650 people over the first five years of operation, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

According to the email, the company plans to make a capital investment of $505 million and hopes to break ground by January 2018 to start operating by the summer of 2020.

MadREP CEP Paul Jadin would not confirm if the project is Foxconn. He also said an amended email was sent out with different site qualifications, but he would not say what had changed from the original email.

“It’s safe to say we want this project, and we are going to work hard to deliver it either to one of the communities, which we’ve received possible sites,” Jadin said.

Fitchburg is another possible option for the electronics company. Mayor Jason Gonzalez said Foxconn looked at three sites in the city near areas with high unemployment rates.

“There will be some entry level manufacturing jobs and … I think that would help our city address some of those issues as far as unemployment,” Gonzalez said.

He said a manufacturing plant would fit into Fitchburg’s biotech scene, noting that the plastic packaging company Placon and the biotech company Promega are located in the city.

Though it is unknown what type of manufacturing facility Foxconn has in mind for Dane County, Gonzalez said it is likely something related to making health monitoring devices such as Fitbits, Apple watches or other wearable devices.

“I’m open to discussion of it, but I also understand I’ve got to protect … the taxpayers and the environment,” Gonzalez said.

Foxconn did not contact Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, his chief of staff Josh Wescott said. Developers will typically contact the municipality where the project would be located to take advantage of economic development incentives such as tax incremental financing.

Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Zach Brandon said it makes sense why Foxconn may be interested in Dane County, listing the area’s advanced manufacturing infrastructure, strong research and design culture in addition to proximity to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also said the company’s chairman is passionate about cancer research after deaths in his family.

“There are few places that are better than this region to do this type of discovery,” Brandon said.

Not only would Foxconn bring jobs and capital investment, Brandon said, but the company’s interest in the area brings intangible benefits such as a recognition that it is a place for innovation.

Some of Wisconsin’s tech leaders are hopeful that Foxconn will make a difference yet concerned about what Walker’s proposed $3 billion Foxconn incentive package could mean for startup-focused economic development.

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“Having one of the world’s tech leaders make a statement that says, 'This is the best place to make our investment,' there’s a whole branding and acceleration of this message that is already taking hold,” Brandon said.

Some state lawmakers skeptical, Walker mum on details

Two state lawmakers representing districts in Dane County have been among the most vocal critics of the original Foxconn proposal.

Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, said Thursday his view of the proposal is just as negative as it was before the bill was introduced. Anderson said he has not heard anything about the company looking to locate in Fitchburg other than what he has read in news reports.

His attitude toward the possibility of a facility in Dane County is similar to Soglin’s: He’s not interested in giving the company preferential treatment.

“If they’re asking for the moon? No,” Anderson said. “If they want to abide by the same rules as other companies, I’m open to it.”

An aide to Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, did not respond to a request to speak with the lawmaker, whose district includes the Oscar Mayer building.

In a statement released earlier this week, before the Dane County news was reported, Taylor referred to the deal as a “scheme” aimed at getting Gov. Scott Walker re-elected.

Walker did not confirm or deny that Foxconn is looking at Dane County when asked about it by reporters on Wednesday.

"I think any of the speculation, and right now I say it’s just speculation, about additional sites in the state is really driven by the fact that … people around the world are taking note of Wisconsin," Walker said.

Pressed for more specifics, Walker said the state is "far away from confirming" any additional deals.

"We just know that they're excited about Wisconsin," he said.

Assembly Republicans said Tuesday they want to vote on the incentive bill by mid-August. But Senate Republicans said they want to hold off on Foxconn until work on the state budget, now one month overdue, is complete. Walker wants to convince them to do both.

"Going forward, I'm going to persuade my friends in both the Assembly and the Senate that they should do both," Walker said, adding the two bills should move "pretty consistently parallel" with each other.

Walker spoke with reporters on Wednesday with Ahn Ho-young, South Korea’s ambassador to the United States. Walker announced his plans to lead a trade mission to South Korea and Japan in September. Walker said he plans to meet with companies in Tokyo and Seoul to discuss expansion or investment opportunities in Wisconsin.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.

Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.