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Foxconn announcement brings hope to Wisconsin, northern Illinois

Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou, left, and Gov. Scott Walker hold the Wisconsin flag to celebrate their $10 billion investment to build a display panel plant in Wisconsin, at the Milwaukee Art Museum in Milwaukee, Wis., Thursday, July 27, 2017. (Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP)

Ghost towns to boom towns?

From far north suburban Waukegan to Racine, Wisconsin, once-thriving communities with empty storefronts are hoping for huge, positive changes should Taiwanese electronics supplier Foxconn follow through on plans to build a sprawling factory somewhere in southeastern Wisconsin, most likely along the Interstate 94 corridor.

The company made national headlines over the past week by signing a memorandum of understanding with Wisconsin officials for the facility that would make flat-panel display screens for televisions and other electronics.

Foxconn has agreed to invest up to $10 billion to build a factory three times the size of the Pentagon that would create up to 13,000 jobs with average salaries of $53,875.

But Wisconsin legislators will have to go into special session to approve a hefty $3 billion in tax credits before the project can get started.

Foxconn is seeking at least 1.5-square-mile site — roughly the same size as the suburbs of Park City or Clarendon Hills — to build its 20 million-square-foot factory. Though officials have yet to announce a location, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has reported the factory needs access to Lake Michigan water, meaning the likely site is somewhere on the east side of Racine or Kenosha counties.

Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou on Thursday told the Journal-Sentinel the company chose southeastern Wisconsin in part because Milwaukee is the center of the U.S. and Chicago is a global hub. He also noted southeastern Wisconsin’s proximity to O’Hare Airport.

But critics have warned the company has made big plans before, which never came to fruition. In 2013, Foxconn said it would invest $30 million and hire 500 workers for a factory in Pennsylvania that  was never built.

Audra Honsberger’s family owns a Kringle bakery in Racine; she hopes the Foxconn announcement is a sign of revitalization for the region. | Ruth Fuller/For the Sun-Times

Despite that — and the hefty tax incentives Foxconn will command — the company’s promise of thousands of jobs seems to have residents from Lake County north to Milwaukee brimming with optimism.

‘On the map’

Once known as “Kringleville” for its flaky Danish pastry, the economically challenged area of west Racine is now dotted with the few remaining bakeries and several stores trying to survive.

Audra Honsberger, whose family owns Bendtsen’s Bakery, the oldest family bakery in Racine, said she hopes an influx of money into the community will help rebuild the once-bustling area.

The Foxconn factory “would bring more people to the Racine area and open more people up to Kringle,” she said. “Having a corporation like that would be a great opening to the world. It would show people what West Racine is known for.”

There’s also hope in Kenosha that the factory — regardless of where it goes — would spur economic development.

“It definitely puts Wisconsin on the map again,” said Rachael Cholak, 21, daughter of the owner of Mike’s Chicken and Donuts in Kenosha. “Ten years ago, Kenosha was a ghost town, but it has been developing a lot over the past 10 years. We get a lot of traffic from the highway because we are right between Milwaukee and Chicago. So this should be good.”

The streets of north suburban Zion are filled with empty storefronts and fast-food restaurants. The Cancer Treatment Centers of America is the only business to have recently fostered development in the area, with two hotels and several restaurants built near it for visitors and patients.

“There are not a lot of good paying jobs in this area,” said Carrie Weber, 48, a single mother of four from Zion. “Amazon came in, along the same area, which helped, but we need so many more jobs — especially ones that pay people well.”

Rachael Cholak says Kenosha is on the way back after some tough times. | Ruth Fuller/For the Sun-Times

Amazon opened a 1 million-square-foot facility in Kenosha in 2015, hiring more than 1,500 full-time employees. It opened a smaller facility in Kenosha, hiring 500 workers, in 2014.

Given those developments, some in Zion are optimistic about Illinois workers getting a crack at the new Foxconn jobs.

“We’ve only lived here less than two years, and I have noticed this community is economically depressed,” said Harold Logan, 53, of Zion. “This will be great, assuming we have the workforce that is educated to the point that they can meet the requirements this company needs.”

Others noted the paycheck Foxconn has advertised and the short commute over the border: “If I have a job that paid $54,000, it would be great,” said Jeremy Marshall, 31, of Zion. “Many people in Zion can’t travel very far for work, which is my case, so this would be great.”

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office called the factory “great news for Wisconsin,” noting “Illinois lawmakers should take notice.” Illinois was among seven states vying for the factory — with many Republicans blaming the state’s high property taxes, workers’ compensation rates and a potential hike in the minimum wage for the loss.

“Illinois can’t continue on the path of ‘business as usual.’ It’s not working for our job creators, for our taxpayers or for our kids,” Rauner spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said in an email.

Jeremy Marshall of Zion is encouraged by the possibility of a healthy paycheck and a reasonable commute if the Foxconn factory gets built. | Ruth Fuller/For the Sun-Times

State Rep. Sheri Jesiel, R-Winthrop Harbor, sees the potential Foxconn factory as providing job opportunities for those in Illinois, but with some downsides, too.

Jesiel said there’s talk of ancillary businesses being created in Illinois to help support the factory. But, like Rauner, she noted the business climate in Illinois is not very welcoming.

“There are facilities on the east side of the highway in Zion and on the west side in Antioch that are very difficult to fill because why not go a couple of miles north and have property taxes that aren’t as high as what you would pay for here?” Jesiel said. “It’s a huge consideration for employers.”

Tina Sfondeles reported from Chicago; Ruth Fuller reported from Zion and Kenosha.