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Foxconn's innovation center in Eau Claire sees little progress

Foxconn Technology Group officials promised last July to bring a share of the largest economic development project in Wisconsin history to the Chippewa Valley.

In a major news conference, they announced plans to create 150 high-tech jobs by opening a downtown Eau Claire innovation center, dubbed Foxconn Place Chippewa Valley, in 2019. The officials indicated they had reached agreement to acquire the former Wells Fargo building and about half of the ground floor of the Haymarket Landing building to house the project.

Eleven months later, the Taiwan-based electronics giant has purchased about 15,500 square feet of commercial space on the first floor of the Haymarket Landing building, but it remains empty. No people, no desks, no construction.

Local officials said last week they have heard little from Foxconn about the status of the Eau Claire innovation center, but they assume the project will proceed eventually.

“We’re still working on the assumption that they are going to do the expansion as originally planned,” said Aaron White, economic development manager for the city of Eau Claire.

White and City Manager Dale Peters met with four members of the Foxconn team a few weeks ago for an update.

“They didn’t have a specific timeline they could provide, but they also didn’t give any indication that the project wasn’t going to move forward,” White said, noting that Foxconn didn’t receive any incentives from the city for the project.

In a statement released Saturday, Foxconn remained committed to its plans.

“Foxconn Technology Group is proud to be moving forward with this crucial part of our commitment to Wisconsin and will continue to work with our partners in the Eau Claire area and across the state on this project,” the statement reads. “The innovation centers are part of a long-term initiative outside of and in addition to our agreement with the state, and fostering the kind of economic activity they can help create is an effort to which we and our partners are fully committed.”

Downtown Eau Claire, with its mix of technology workers and UW-Eau Claire students living at Haymarket Landing, is just the kind of place Foxconn seeks when trying to create a work environment that will generate innovation, Alan Yeung, Foxconn’s director of U.S. strategic initiatives, told the Leader-Telegram in a September visit to Eau Claire.

During the same visit, Yeung said Foxconn’s goal was to occupy finished space in Eau Claire as early as December 2018 and that the company intends to collaborate with UW-Eau Claire and community leaders to determine exactly what research projects local employees would pursue.

Stuart Schaefer, president of Commonweal Development Corp. in Eau Claire, said he has heard little about the project since his firm sold Foxconn the Haymarket Landing space, at 200 Eau Claire St., for $2.7 million last fall.

“They haven’t started construction yet, but they haven’t said they’re not going forward, so I don’t know what they’re up to,” Schaefer said.

Meanwhile, Foxconn officially backed out of any commitment to occupying the former Wells Fargo building at 204 E. Grand Ave., according to JCap Real Estate, which owns the six-story building.

The city issued Foxconn a building permit on Jan. 31 to renovate the shell space at Haymarket Landing, which along with Pablo Center is part of the Confluence Project at the intersection of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers. The permit, which is good for two years, showed an estimated project cost of $2 million.

City records also indicate Foxconn designated Eau Claire-based Market & Johnson as the contractor for the project.

Market & Johnson president Jerry Shea said Thursday the project remains in the design phase. While some heating, ventilating and air conditioning equipment has been ordered, the construction start date is still unknown, he added.

“We stand ready to get going when they are,” Shea said.

With the speed of change in the high-tech industry, project delays are not unusual for technology clients, he noted.

Media reports have indicated the other innovation centers Foxconn has announced across the state appear to be similarly delayed. The centers are in Green Bay, Milwaukee, Racine and Madison.

David Minor, president of the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, said he hasn’t heard an update on the local Foxconn project for several months, but he is not alarmed by the delay.

“I’ve come to expect there will be delays on big projects like that,” Minor said. “I think it will still happen. It’s just a matter of time.”

In this case, Minor speculated the delay in the Eau Claire project is likely related to changes in the company’s plans for a $10 billion manufacturing facility in Racine County it says will employ up to 13,000 people. The plan calls for more than $4 billion in tax credits and other public incentives to the company.

“I think that’s their focus right now,” he said.

When Foxconn Place Chippewa Valley moves ahead, it should only add to the momentum of downtown Eau Claire, Minor said.

“Any business that moves in here and wants to employ 150 people, that’s a good thing for Eau Claire,” Minor said.

The Pulse and Parkland shootings: Why was 1 cop called hero, the other arrested?

ORLANDO, Fla. — When Orlando police Officer Adam Gruler saw a shooter at the gay nightclub Pulse three years ago, he fired his handgun at him but did not pursue him inside, even as the gunman blasted a dance floor full of clubgoers with bullets from a high-powered rifle, killing 49.

Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Scot Peterson made a similar choice last year when he stayed outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as a gunman rampaged through the campus, killing 17 people.

Gruler was hailed as a hero by local officials and attended the State of the Union address as an honored guest.

In South Florida, Peterson was fired and arrested Tuesday for not acting to protect children.

Christine Leinonen, who lost her only son Christopher “Drew” Leinonen at Pulse, said she thinks both Gruler and Peterson are “cowards.”

Gruler has faced criticism since the Pulse massacre from law enforcement experts as well as survivors and victims’ families, some of whom filed a since-dismissed federal lawsuit against the officer. But local officials have defended his actions and reiterated that stance in the wake of Peterson’s arrest this week.

OPD spokesman Sgt. Eduardo Bernal said in an email that Peterson’s arrest for not entering the building during the mass shooting “doesn’t change the fact that Officer Adam Gruler acted appropriately during the Pulse incident.” Former OPD Chief John Mina previously told the Orlando Sentinel it was “unfair and inaccurate” to compare the Pulse and Parkland shootings because Gruler “did engage the suspect. He did go toward the sound of gunfire” despite being outgunned.

Investigators said Peterson retreated from the gunfire and told arriving backup to stay 500 feet from the building where the massacre was occurring.

In an email, Orlando police union president Shawn Dunlap called comparing the two situations “offensive.”

“Officer Gruler exchanged gunfire with Mateen,” Dunlap said. “ … Gruler actually encountered Mateen two separate times as he continued to engage him until additional officers arrived on scene. The media reports that I have read about Broward County was that the deputy took cover and did not engage at all.”

Adam Lankford, a University of Alabama criminology professor who studies mass shootings, said the “sub-optimal response” in both Pulse and Parkland led to a delay in confronting the gunmen in the crucial initial minutes when the shootings started. Acting sooner “could have saved lives” in both cases, he said.

Lankford said Peterson’s arrest was the first time he had heard of an officer being charged for failing to act during a mass shooting. He said “public outcry” was likely a factor in Peterson being vilified and charged, while Gruler was not.

“Typically, you don’t prosecute bad decisions when people are acting in heat of the moment if their intent was good,” he said. “I guess some people would argue Gruler’s intent was good even if some of the decisions he made were not some of the best ones. The intent on the part of the school resource officer seemed primarily to save himself.”

Pulse review’s focus: force

The most comprehensive review of the Pulse mass shooting, conducted by the State Attorney’s Office, was limited to examining the shots fired by law enforcement officers who responded to the club and whether those shots were justified uses of deadly force.

It answered one critical question: Police did not accidentally injure or kill any of the Pulse victims during the massacre. But it did not answer why police waited six minutes after the shooting started to enter the club.

Gruler, who was working an extra-duty shift at Pulse, was standing in front of his patrol car when he heard gunshots coming from inside Pulse. By then, Omar Mateen had already walked into the club with a Sig Sauer MCX rifle and immediately started firing.

At 2:02 a.m., Gruler radioed “shots fired” and asked for help as bleeding patrons ran out of Pulse. When he saw the barrel of Mateen’s gun emerge from the south side of Pulse, Gruler fired from about 75 feet away, but struck the doors. Gruler moved around the building and saw Mateen walking around the dance floor, shooting people on the ground.

Gruler fired at Mateen again while standing near the nightclub’s roadside sign. Gruler radioed six times from outside the building in those first two minutes, asking for help.

Police didn’t go inside Pulse until 2:08 a.m. By then, OPD would later estimate, the shooter had already fired about 200 rounds in less than five minutes.

In a statement, Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala, whose office declined to make her available for an interview, said no investigation was ever submitted to her office for review regarding Gruler’s actions.

“The evidence we have shows that Officer Gruler did engage with the shooter on two separate occasions, and he called for backup,” Ayala said. “Because of him, more members of law enforcement arrived on scene within minutes. Based on Officer Gruler’s actions my office concluded that criminal charges were not appropriate.”

The FDLE said it neither decides nor recommends whether charges should be filed when investigating a police shooting. For its report on Pulse, the agency interviewed 34 witnesses and examined radio transmissions and video footage.

“We conduct a thorough and independent investigation,” FDLE spokeswoman Angela Starke said. “Those findings are then given to the respective state attorney who determines if charges will be filed.”

When the FDLE announced Peterson’s arrest, the agency said it had “interviewed 184 witnesses, reviewed countless hours of video surveillance and wrote 212 investigative reports totaling over 800 hours on the case to determine the actions of law enforcement” during the Parkland shooting.

Peterson, who was assigned to protect the school, was charged with seven counts of child neglect, three counts of culpable negligence and one count of perjury.

“The FDLE investigation shows former Deputy Peterson did absolutely nothing to mitigate the MSD shooting that killed 17 children, teachers and staff and injured 17 others,” said FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen. “There can be no excuse for his complete inaction and no question that his inaction cost lives.”

Peterson’s attorney Joseph DiRuzzo told the Sun-Sentinel the charges against his client are “nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt at politically motivated retribution against Mr. Peterson.”

“The individuals who have made this charging decision have taken the easy way out and blamed Mr. Peterson … when there has only ever been one person to blame – Nikolas Cruz,” DiRuzzo said.

A ‘pound of flesh’?

Legal experts agree the child neglect and culpable negligence charges against Peterson will be hard to prove because prosecutors will have to make the unusual argument that the school security officer meets the definition of a caregiver for the students under state law.

Orlando criminal defense lawyer Richard Hornsby said the case is uncharted territory that could open the door to criminal charges any time a public official makes a decision that ultimately results in injury to a child.

“If the prosecution is successful, any time a public official, principal, school resource officer, DCF worker makes any decision that results in injury to a child they can be prosecuted for child neglect,” Hornsby said. “That’s not the intent of the statue.”

It also contradicts U.S. Supreme Court rulings that police officers don’t have to risk their lives to save somebody else, Hornsby said.

“I think Peterson is a political scapegoat to give parents a pound of flesh,” he said. “I think it’s because people consider his actions to be cowardly and borderline criminal but the problem is just because something might be morally reprehensible, doesn’t necessarily make it a crime.”

Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a former police officer and prosecutor, called the case against Peterson “absolutely outrageous.”

“Police are civilians with guns with very basic training and have proven time and time again that their skills are not very reliable with firearms,” he said. “The notion that American police, with some exceptions, have the capacity to turn into commandos in the middle of a mass casualty killing is not bordered by reality.”

U.S. District Judge Paul G. Byron last November dismissed a lawsuit by Pulse survivors and victims’ families against Gruler. Byron wrote Gruler was entitled to “qualified immunity” and his actions at Pulse did not “(shock) the conscience.”

Solomon Radner, the Michigan-based attorney who represented some of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, called it “ridiculous” that it was easier to criminally charge Peterson than to sue Gruler civilly. Radner is also representing Parkland parents and students suing Peterson.

“We are trusting police to do a job,” he said. “We are giving them a tremendous amount of legal power and with that power comes a certain amount of responsibility that requires them to sometimes risk their lives.”

Leinonen said concerns she and other Pulse parents had about the police response were largely ignored compared with Parkland because the victims were mostly from working class families and many did not speak English.

“People listened to everybody in Parkland,” she said. “Nobody listened to us.”

Contributed photo  

Ashley Schneider of Eau Claire, shown in November 2018, has been recovering from an eating disorder for the past year and a half. She plans to run Grandma’s Marathon this month to raise money and awareness for others struggling with eating disorders.