Gov. Scott Walker hinted Wednesday to Chippewa Valley business and government leaders that Taiwanese technology giant Foxconn may announce some type of investment in Eau Claire in the next couple of weeks.
The governor dropped what he called the “tease” during a speech at an Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon at The Florian Gardens. He mentioned the potential announcement after making the case that Foxconn Technology Group, which is building a massive $10 billion manufacturing plant in southeastern Wisconsin it promises will employ 13,000 workers, will provide a tremendous boost to Wisconsin’s economy. State and local governments have pledged at least $4 billion in subsidies for the first phase of the project.
After discussing Foxconn’s recent announcement that it plans to buy a former Younkers and H.C. Prange department store building in downtown Green Bay and open an innovation center there by the end of the year, Walker remarked, “I would watch in the next week or two because something somewhat close to that might happen in Eau Claire.”
The governor declined to elaborate, saying, “I’m not going to jump the gun and step on their announcement.”
David Minor, president of the Eau Claire chamber, also declined to comment on Foxconn’s potential plans in Eau Claire.
Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou has said the Green Bay facility will focus on developing applications for new display technology and for the education, medical, health care, entertainment, sports and securities industries. More than 200 people are expected to work at the Green Bay innovation center.
Such investments make sense because the company needs to find ways to connect with potential workers across the state, said Walker, a two-term incumbent who is up for re-election this fall and will be challenged by the winner of a crowded Democratic primary on Aug. 14.
“We believe Foxconn is considering an additional investment here in the Chippewa Valley, and we think that will help them augment some of the work they’re doing to attract a little more talent to help them with their operations and that it physically doesn’t have to be all right down in Racine,” Walker told reporters after the speech. “We’re excited about what’s coming up.”
State Democrats, however, have been critical of the largest pledge of state taxpayer money to a foreign company in U.S. history.
“Walker’s Foxconn folly will cost taxpayers $4.5 billion while the state’s schools are facing a funding crisis and roads are crumbling. Wisconsin’s families are working harder than ever but can’t seem to get ahead because of Walker’s policies and failures,” state Democratic Party spokesman TJ Helmstetter said in a statement. “Foxconn is already retreating from its promises, while families lose their homes to eminent domain and Lake Michigan will be drained of its water. Wisconsin deserves better than Walker’s special interest deals.”
The hints about a potential Foxconn investment in Eau Claire fit in well with Walker’s speech, which focused primarily on efforts by his administration to address workforce development challenges across the state.
The governor highlighted three key efforts to tackle the worker shortages plaguing Wisconsin employers at a time when the state’s unemployment rate is a historically low 2.8 percent.
Walker mentioned state investment in education and training; recruitment of young workers and transitioning veterans from other states; and breaking barriers to employment by providing training for inmates and requiring people who get public assistance to work at least 30 hours a week.
“It used to be we were marketing for jobs for businesses ... but our advertising has completely shifted toward talent because we know the single most important barrier to continued economic growth is workforce,” Walker said.
Eau Claire chamber officials agreed the ability to find enough workers is the No. 1 issue facing local employers.
“Workforce is such a major issue right now,” Minor said. “I can’t go through a week or sometimes even a day without somebody calling or talking about what they can do to find more workers. I’ve talked to manufacturers who say, ‘I could take more work, but I don’t have the employees.’ It really is at the stage where we need to start making some serious inroads.”
That overwhelming sentiment is the reason the chamber is spearheading an effort to gather information about all of the region’s workforce development programs and strategies and make them accessible to employers through the chamber’s website.
The goal is to launch the resource before the end of this year, said Scott Rogers, the chamber’s governmental affairs and workforce director.
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