WIND POINT — Local residents have a great number of questions about how the massive Foxconn manufacturing campus — set to be constructed in Mount Pleasant — is going to impact southeastern Wisconsin.
And Racine’s former mayor, John Dickert, believes officials owe the public answers as the company looks to benefit from $3 billion in tax incentives from the state.
During a public forum Wednesday evening at The Prairie School, audience members and those watching via Facebook Live posed questions to three panelists, including Dickert. Top concerns for Dickert, who is now the president and CEO of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, are transportation and environmental impact.
The proposed 32 million-square-foot Foxconn campus will manufacture liquid crystal display panels and finished products. The development could produce up to 13,000 jobs, but the currently unemployed don’t have a shot at those jobs if they can’t find transportation to the factory, Dickert contends.
“Number one, you need a train system that’s efficient and effective,” Dickert said. “We have that in Metra. We need a commuter rail system for people who can’t afford Amtrak.”
Dickert suggested the benefits of constructing a Metra line to Milwaukee, which he said would pull 1,600 cars off the road a day. The Metra line from Chicago currently ends in Kenosha, but Racine has a long idle train depot available at the Corinne Reid Owens Transit Center on State Street.
“Pull those (commuters) off, you lighten traffic for the trucking industry, then the trucking industry saves money for the business,” Dickert said.
Another panelist, Richard Longworth, a distinguished fellow on global cities at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, suggested the use of a government-subsidized bus service to get employees to and from the Foxconn campus. He said public transportation running all day and night would ultimately save taxpayers money because it would allow those who don’t have vehicles and might otherwise receive unemployment benefits to go back to work.
Dickert and Longworth agreed that officials need to look at planning for transportation — as well as other issues — from a regional perspective. They believe this will save costs and benefit everyone who might have something to gain from Foxconn’s location in southeastern Wisconsin.
Dickert’s organization, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, penned a letter to the governor on Wednesday saying it would like to work with the state to ensure that Foxconn has the tools to help keep area waterways clean.
“We just want to make sure those systems are in place because the technology is there, that you can actually send the water back cleaner than you got it,” he said.
He urged officials to look at the long-term impact of water use, instead of looking at only today or tomorrow.
“Take the long look, I will guarantee that it’ll save you money,” Dickert said.
Dickert’s organization is working to find out what environmental regulations will apply to the Foxconn land. The relaxing of some environmental regulations were a part of the state incentive package. Dickert said that officials owe the public answers about what protections are in place at the site.
Audience members on Wednesday wanted to know if there was any way to guarantee that Foxconn jobs would go to minorities, some of the most disadvantaged members of many communities in southeastern Wisconsin. Panelist Deborah Davidson, vice president of workforce and economic development at Gateway Technical College, said the college will provide access to training, and pre-training skills, for any interested potential workers. Pre-training could include learning English as a second language or working toward a high school diploma equivalency.
Gateway has been in contact with the Taiwan-based Foxconn about what company officials are looking for in potential hires.
“They want students to have associate degrees,” Davidson said. “They have hired some interns.”
Foxconn is interested in interns in manufacturing, engineering and information technology programs, and who are on a degree path, she said.
Paul and Ruth Guenther, who were in the audience on Wednesday, said they were both worried about the possible environmental impact Foxconn will have on the area. The Guenthers, who live in Mount Pleasant, own farmland in the area as well. Ruth Guenther said she is also concerned about how many questions local residents have that have not been significantly answered.
WUWM, the public radio station in Milwaukee, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sponsored Wednesday’s forum. Foxconn was invited to send a company representative to take part in the panel, but declined to do so.