Anyone following Racine County development news over the past three years has likely discovered ties back to Foxconn’s plans to construct a display panel plant in Mount Pleasant.
While the development may not have lived up to expectations, and the future of the project is still uncertain, several involved in Racine County’s economic development say the county only stands to gain from the Taiwanese manufacturer’s presence moving forward.
It’s no secret that Foxconn and Wisconsin’s relationship has been rocky. Foxconn drastically reduced the scope of its project and is now in talks with the state to renegotiate its nearly $3 billion incentive contract. The state has refused to provide any tax credits to the company under the existing deal, saying it has not met hiring or capital investment requirements to receive them. Foxconn has disputed the state’s denial of tax credits.
The company also announced plans to produce high-tech coffee kiosks, and then later proposed to manufacture ventilators for the coronavirus pandemic at the Mount Pleasant complex. But both initiatives ended soon after they were announced.
How the Foxconn deal shakes out does have broader implications for Wisconsin, but the southeastern part of the state, including Racine County, is already benefiting from the infrastructure improvements that have been done for the project, said Jim Paetsch, vice president of corporate relocation for Milwaukee 7.
Foxconn’s development fast tracked several road projects, including improvements to I-94, interchanges and roads surrounding the site. A considerable amount of fiber optics for high-speed internet has also been laid, making developable land in the area all the more attractive, he said.
Surrounding communities can now tap into sewer and water serving the Foxconn site, which provides Racine County a much larger chunk of development-ready land, Paetsch added.[gallery columns="4" size="full" ids="516010,524733,524736,524737"]
“All that infrastructure is going to be money well spent,” Paetsch said. “I am confident that Foxconn is going to turn into something significant, but the infrastructure is also going to unlock development opportunities in the areas that surround the site.”
Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave called Racine County’s portion of the I-94 corridor “a canvas that has yet to be painted,” adding that becoming “a premier economic corridor in the United States” is his vision.
“You’re going to attract not just Foxconn partners; you’re going to attract other companies (because) they want to be in that vibrant corridor,” Delagrave said.
The Racine County Economic Development Corp. and M7 have tracked a compendium of Racine County development projects spurred by Foxconn’s initial announcement.
These projects, spanning from 2017 to June 2020, have either been announced, are in progress, proposed or completed. The two organizations estimate that if all projects come to fruition, at least 2,583 jobs and 2,912 housings units will have been created while all projects together equate to capital investments of more than $1.2 billion.
Development has boomed in Kenosha County largely because of its proximity to Chicago. On Racine County’s northern end, the DeBack Farms Business Park continues to attract companies while the county’s other business parks, including GrandView, draw continued investment.
Because Racine County is the confluence of Chicago’s northern expansion and Milwaukee’s southern expansion, Paetsch envisions the entire I-94 North-South corridor filling in over the next 10 years.
Infrastructure improvements related to Foxconn’s project have drawn new business, but they are also attracting a diverse mix of housing – one of Racine County’s greatest needs, Delagrave said.
The county has spent the past several years working with municipal leaders and developers to address the lack of diverse housing options. Although housing remains a challenge for the county, city of Racine mayor Cory Mason says municipalities are now recognizing the value that diverse housing provides.
One such project is Bear Development’s Canopy Hill in Union Grove, a 160-acre housing development that includes a mix of single and multi-family homes, condos and senior living.
Foxconn and proximity to employment is one of several factors that attracted Bear Development to Union Grove, said S.R. Mills, Bear Development chief executive officer.
“Foxconn has certainly been the talk for some time,” Mills said. “We believe whatever they end up doing within those facilities, we’re just going to see continued employment. And again, there’s just such a demand for any type of housing at this point that we think it makes a lot of sense.”
There is a broader trend of families in Racine County moving to its western communities, including Burlington, Waterford and Union Grove, Mills said. For some families, it’s the allure of a rural atmosphere; for others, it’s the higher performing school districts that draw them west.
“There’s certainly things happening in Racine proper, but I think it’s fair to say that proportionately, there’s more (residential) development west of the interstate in Racine County,” Mills said.
But some housing developments are cropping up in the city of Racine too, including 141 affordable and market-rate apartments at the former Ajax industrial site, and Gold Medal Lofts, a 77-unit mixed-income apartment complex on Racine’s south side.
Because the city is landlocked, many of its housing projects call for an adaptive reuse design, which historically is a more challenging type of housing development.
However, Mason believes developers and families may take a second look at the city’s neighborhoods following Racine Unified School District’s recent $1 billion referendum, which calls for closing nine schools and building five new ones.
“Some of those schools are over 150 years old,” Mason said. “To have them replaced with new modern facilities that are able to provide great education opportunities to kids, I think that’s a real economic advantage we will have moving forward.”
Economic disparities continue to be a major area of concern in Racine County, Mason said. The county is split by I-94, where the world views and values of eastern and western county residents have historically diverged. In many ways, Racine County is almost as if Milwaukee and Waukesha were placed within the same county, which introduces challenges when developing a shared vision for the future, Mason said.
Western Racine County residents are concerned with preserving the rural atmosphere of their communities while those in the east are faced with unemployment and workforce development needs.
One solution to bridge the divide is to ensure that Racine County residents understand how both the hurdles and successes in each community impact the entire county, Delagrave said.
“It’s not competing; it’s how can we grow together and be successful while adhering to that diversity that we think is a huge strength of ours,” Delagrave said. “Essentially it’s saying, ‘we’re all in this together.’”
Greater access to transportation, whether that’s roads, rail or bus systems, would also bring county residents closer together, Mason added.
“It would help culturally with our sense of a shared future, but it would also help economically as well,” Mason said. “I think people have to understand that we’re all connected and how one part of the county does is going to affect the broader county.”