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Foxconn takes center stage in New Richmond, River Falls

Sen. Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset, was joined by Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz and Sen. Janet Bewley of Mason on Monday, Oct. 1, at New Richmond Civic Center for a listening session on the Foxconn project. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia

Lawmakers traveled this week to western Wisconsin to learn what residents think of a massive manufacturing project on the other side of the state.

Foxconn was the only item on the agenda Monday, Oct. 1, at events in New Richmond and River Falls, where Somerset Sen. Patty Schachtner was joined by Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz of Oshkosh and Sen. Janet Bewley of Mason.

The project's centerpiece is a large manufacturing plant in Racine County, with the company's North American headquarters in Milwaukee. So-called "innovation centers" have since been announced for Green Bay and Eau Claire.

The panel of Democrats fielded audience questions in New Richmond, where Schachtner said she noticed a distinct demographic among those in the crowd: It was all women.

"It tells me who's engaged," she said after the meeting.

The New Richmond and River Falls meetings were the latest listening sessions held around western Wisconsin, where lawmakers said they wanted to both update residents and gather their feedback on the project.

New Richmond resident Barb Arnst said she was there because she wanted to learn more about Foxconn, a topic that has become a focal point this year for politicians on the campaign trail.

Republicans have touted the project as an economic development coup for Wisconsin, the financial benefits of which they say will ripple far beyond Racine County. Democrats, meanwhile, contend there wasn't time to fully vet the project and that the estimated public funding for it has risen by about $1.5 billion since first announced.

"I don't feel like it's a good thing for us," Arnst said after the meeting.

Not everyone left the meeting with a sour taste.

"I learned a lot — both pros and cons," Star Prairie resident Sue Irle said.

Schachtner said her chief concern with the $10 billion Foxconn project, which Hintz said will now cost the state about $4.5 billion, is how accountable lawmakers will be to the legislation, the contract between the company and the state, and the process.

"Equal conversations didn't happen" in the run-up to passage last year of a bill authorizing state assistance for Foxconn, Schachtner said.

Republican Party of Wisconsin Communications Director Alec Zimmerman said Democrats have been playing politics with the project.

"Thanks to Gov. Scott Walker's leadership, Wisconsin secured a historic and transformative investment in our state from Foxconn that is already creating family-supporting jobs in every corner of Wisconsin," he said. "Democrats would put all this and more at risk purely to score political points, proving they can't be trusted to look out for the best interests of hard working Wisconsin families."

Hintz, the Assembly's top Democrat, led the presentation, where he described various facets of the Foxconn project, which will manufacture LCD screens for smartphones. He pointed to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo that said it will take the state about 25 years to recoup its investment in the deal.

"Only later on did it come out that we would have these additional costs," Hintz said of the $4.5 billion price tag.

Bewley said it's worth considering how Foxconn pulled out of a similar proposal in Pennsylvania.

"I'm a little nervous about it," she said.

Asked by an audience member why the deal got traction in Wisconsin, Hintz said Foxconn was tempting for lawmakers. The notion of "look at what I did" was a driving factor for Walker and other Republicans, Hintz said.

Hintz noted that Foxconn, a Taiwan-based company that he said would like to stay in the American government's good graces amid the threat of trade wars, saw the benefit of public funds in addition to lower transportation costs for the United States market.

New Richmond City Council Member Scottie Ard raised her own concerns about Foxconn at the meeting. She said stormwater runoff at the plant was just one of her problems.

"I feel Wisconsin is going to be harmed by this project in the future," Ard said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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