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Wisconsin emerges as a top site for mega-plant

MADISON — Wisconsin has emerged as a top potential site for a major investment from Taiwanese electronics giant Foxconn, drawing multiple visits from top executives and boosting private hopes of the state winning a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Wisconsin still faces competition from multiple states and could have to provide enormous incentives to land a plant from Foxconn Technology Group under a potentially tight timeline.

But extensive interviews show that Wisconsin has gotten intense vetting in recent weeks, with Foxconn executives traveling the state to see potential sites and talking with everyone from politicians and local economic development officials to higher education leaders. That includes a visit in recent days from the company's legendary founder and chairman Terry Gou, who has said Foxconn would make a decision in July.

"Foxconn has invested a lot of time and money kicking the tires here," said one economic development official who asked not to be named. "This trip is not the first trip. This trip is at least the third trip if not more."

The kind of highly automated plant that Foxconn is planning could transform Wisconsin manufacturing, but landing it could take hundreds of millions of dollars in local, state and federal incentives and assistance, sources said.

Those familiar with the discussions are reluctant to talk about them because of fears of compromising a potential deal and because the state has taken the relatively common step of signing a non-disclosure agreement with the company.

But word has seeped out as company officials have held a number of meetings and looked at sites in the Racine area and central Wisconsin as well as parcels in Dane County that would not be suitable for a large plant.

The meetings included a barbecue with Foxconn officials and other attendees at the Lake Mendota mansion of Gov. Scott Walker last Tuesday night, multiple sources said.

State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, acknowledged that he attended that event and also that he had met Gou, the Taiwanese executive who built Foxconn from humble beginnings into a multi-billion dollar company.

The Senate GOP leader referred comment to the Walker administration but confirmed the huge size of the Foxconn deal might require legislation to help the state compete for or accommodate a factory. Foxconn has talked about spending more than $10 billion on new U.S. factories that could employ thousands.

"I can't imagine (we) wouldn't at some point but I don't know what it would like," Fitzgerald said of potential legislation.

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Janesville has acknowledged meeting with Foxconn executives in the middle of June at Walker's request.

President Donald Trump last month said at a stop in Milwaukee that Walker might get "a very happy surprise very soon" about an unspecified company.

Reuters reported in June that Gou told reporters his company was considering locations in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. He told shareholders last month he wanted "to move our entire supply chain there," according to Reuters.

"In the U.S., the state governors' sincerity and confidence to attract investment ... is beyond my imagination," Gou said at the time.

Talk among state officials, lobbyists and higher education leaders ramped up last week as a private jet linked to Foxconn landed in Milwaukee and Madison.

Wisconsin has advantages to Foxconn such as interstates, proximity to Chicago and an income tax exemption on manufacturing profits. But the state would need huge efforts to supply enough tech-savvy workers who can operate robots, artificial intelligence and state-of-the-art automation systems.

In Michigan, the state House of Representatives last week approved tax incentives of up to $200 million that legislators have sought in part to lure companies such as Foxconn. Officials from Foxconn have visited Michigan at least three times recently, the Detroit Free Press has reported.

Meanwhile, the Columbus Dispatch has reported that Foxconn is considering sites in central Ohio, too.

In the past, some Foxconn investments have failed to materialize.

In November 2013, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett announced that Foxconn planned to invest $30 million in a "high-end technology manufacturing facility" with 500 jobs. The company has a small research operation in Harrisburg, Pa., but the factory was never built.

Similarly, the Washington Post reported in March that Foxconn has spoken of making major investments in India, Vietnam and Brazil, but with results that have not matched the original announcements.

Still, it's clear that a Wisconsin investment is under serious consideration.

Formally called Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. Ltd., Foxconn is huge, with revenue last year of about $135 billion and a reported 1 million workers in China, where it does most of its manufacturing. Last year, Foxconn acquired Japan's Sharp Corp., which makes flat display panels for televisions and other uses.

It is panel production that Foxconn is considering locating in the U.S. — possibly a move to protect against trade barriers threatened by Trump.

Some sources were circumspect about Wisconsin's chances, noting other states were also pushing to land Foxconn. But other sources were bullish on the Badger State's chances.

"I think it's the bottom of the ninth and we're winning," one source familiar with the talks said.

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