Foxconn impact could be felt in Waukesha County

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When Paul Farrow was elected Waukesha County executive, he said his goal would be to make the county the epicenter of economic growth in southeastern Wisconsin.

Foxconn Technology Group’s plans for a $10 billion, 22-million-square-foot LCD panel manufacturing campus in Mount Pleasant may have shifted the center of gravity when it comes to economic development in the Milwaukee 7 region, but Farrow isn’t backing away from the ideas behind his original goal.

“We’re embracing it,” Farrow said of Foxconn. “You look at a lot of different times in a community and very rarely will you get a game-changing, future-altering opportunity like we have with Foxconn.”

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Foxconn’s projections call for $1.4 billion in supply chain spending within the state once its plant is fully operational, and Waukesha County leaders believe they’re well-positioned to benefit.

“We’ve already met with companies that are potential suppliers,” said Suzanne Kelley, president and chief executive officer of the Waukesha County Business Alliance. Those meetings also included representatives from Milwaukee 7 and Foxconn.

Farrow said even though the company’s campus will be in Racine County, he expects it will draw heavily on businesses in a 50- to 75-mile radius of the plant.

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“There are a lot of components that we don’t even know what they need,” he said of Foxconn.

Piecing together the Foxconn supply chain has provided challenges as the company looks to bring a new industry to the United States. State officials have said as many as 150 companies could follow Foxconn to the U.S., but few details have emerged about what those businesses do.

For companies that are already here, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. has established a Supply Chain Marketplace where companies can submit information about their offerings. The agency also created the position of “business and investment attraction director” to work with the company on supply chain issues. Jela Trask, who now holds the new position, acknowledged at the Manufacturing Matters conference in Milwaukee in March that submitting information to the marketplace can feel like a bit of a black hole, but added it’s the best way for businesses to get on Foxconn’s radar.

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M+W|Gilbane, the general contractor for construction of the Foxconn project, spent much of April holding information sessions to explain bidding procedures for the project. Tim Casey, director of Waukesha County Center for Growth Inc., said he’s expecting similar meetings to take place when the time is right for supply chain opportunities.

“That’s going to be a phenomenal chunk of business,” he said of the projected $1.4 billion in spending.

Even before construction or operations get underway, a number of Waukesha County businesses have realized opportunities from Foxconn. Todd Taves, a senior municipal advisor in the Pewaukee office of Ehlers & Associates Inc., worked with Mount Pleasant on the local incentive package. Pewaukee-based Ruekert & Mielke Inc. is working with the City of Racine on engineering the Lake Michigan water supply for the plant. Brookfield-based R.A. Smith Inc. even decided to open a Mount Pleasant office, citing existing relationships in the area and anticipated future growth.

“We’ve been talking about an office down there for probably five years,” Rick Smith, chief executive officer of R.A. Smith, told BizTimes earlier this year.

Smith said the civil engineering firm works with seven municipalities in the area and it just made sense with Foxconn’s arrival.

Even Waukesha Water Utility officials are working with Racine officials to coordinate needs for water supply pipes. Waukesha is planning to build a supply line from Milwaukee, and Racine could be extending supply to the Foxconn plant.

Farrow’s original plan for Waukesha County’s growth emphasized helping companies already in the county grow, and he said that’s where the focus will remain.

“A lot of what’s happening right now is growth from companies that are already here,” he said.

His plans called for the establishment of a county economic development entity, collaboration with municipalities and the creation of a collaborative fund to help finance projects. The first two tasks have been accomplished with the Center for Growth, and Farrow is hopeful the fund will be established soon.

“He’s knocked it out of the water,” Farrow said of Casey.

Still, Farrow acknowledged there might be changes coming to Waukesha County, particularly when it comes to housing density. He said there’s a need for smaller homes on smaller lots to offer younger residents an entry point and there’s also a need for housing options for empty nesters.

“I want to keep them engaged,” he said of the county’s retired community, arguing they can offer a knowledge base for entrepreneurs in the area.

Kelley acknowledged the arrival of Foxconn has some businesses worried about finding employees, which is already a challenge with unemployment rates well below 3 percent in Waukesha County.

“We also believe Foxconn will be a talent magnet to the state,” she said.

Farrow said Foxconn’s decision to locate in southeastern Wisconsin highlights the region’s capabilities in advanced manufacturing and businesses, particularly those involved in automation, are already seeing a bump in interest.

“I think we’re going to see a lot of people moving here,” he said.

In addition to embracing different housing densities, Farrow said transportation and education changes can help address workforce challenges.

On transportation, he says he favors flexible options like Uber or the sharing of autonomous vehicles over fixed-route options.

“We know there’s a huge regional challenge on (transportation),” he said.

Farrow also praised the K-12 educational system for engaging with business.

“They’re really starting to realize they can get kids interested in what their career might be,” he said.

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