Foxconn's inconsistent, chaotic behavior in Wisconsin looks awfully grifty

Foxconn gave Wisconsin hard-line GOP governor Scott Walker and Donald Trump a great story to tell about the triumph of their ideology: that with enough corporate welfare, high-tech manufacturing jobs could come back to America, in the form of an LCD factory in Wisconsin that would employ 13,000 people.

Two years later, Foxconn has been handed billions in subsidies, despite its long history of broken promises on factory rollouts, through which it absorbed titanic fortunes from governments and then delivered only a fraction of what it had promised (or nothing at all).

Foxconn is holding true to form in Wisconsin: after receiving huge infusions of public money, after convincing cities to bulldoze people's homes to make way for its "factory," after flip-flopping on whether there will be a factory, the company has no definite plans.

Instead, Foxconn keeps on fronting little convincers, like announcing that it is buying a bunch of buildings around the state to use as "innovation hubs" or "incubators," then either quietly reneging on the purchases, or leaving the buildings sitting empty.

Meanwhile, it's painfully obvious that the local and state governments got scammed. Foxconn is not going to build an LCD plant in Wisconsin because there is a global gut in the supply of LCDs and Foxconn is operating its own LCD plants well below capacity due to the lack of demand. The fact that Foxconn is promising an "AI 8K+5G ecosystem" -- a meaningless buzzword only missing the word "blockchain" to score a perfect Gartner Hype Cycle bingo -- should ring alarm bells for anyone who's paying attention.

The smart money is on the idea that if they delay until 2020 -- so that Trump can talk them up as a success story when he fights for re-election -- that no one will mind much if they quietly back away from their ambitious plans, pocket all those billions, and build out a small R&D center or, I dunno, a packing plant or something.

For Foxconn watchers, the Milwaukee headquarters feels like a distillation of the whole ordeal. Foxconn did buy a building — it put signs up, and there are some people there with Foxconn lanyards — but it’s a significantly diminished version of what was promised and strangely secret for a project that began with such public fanfare.

It’s become something of a running joke. When I told people I’d been to the headquarters, they would often grin and ask what happened, before recounting their own experiences of getting turned away at the lobby. Brostoff calls it a “ghost town, an empty storefront.” Matt Flynn, who ran in the Democratic gubernatorial primary and is trying to raise money for a suit claiming elements of the Foxconn contract are unconstitutional, calls it a “Potemkin office” and likens it to a flimsy stage set on a television Western. A local observer gave me a tip from his own attempts to discern what exactly is going on inside the headquarters: if you go to the top floor of a parking garage across the street at dusk, you can see into the Foxconn floors. I did so and saw that it looks like a normal office, and there were at least six people inside.

If there’s a showcase of innovations in the Milwaukee headquarters, as Woo had promised, Foxconn has made it extremely difficult to find.

Public records indicate that not much has been done with the space. Permits have been taken out for about $60,000 worth of renovations since Foxconn moved in, mostly to Baird’s floors, the ventilation system, and the elevator. When I called the architect at the head of the firm that sources said had won the redesign project and told him I was working on a story about Foxconn, he promptly hung up. Subsequent attempts to reach him were not returned.

Foxconn is confusing the hell out of Wisconsin [Josh Dzieza/The Verge]