Work underway, but Foxconn site prep will take until August 2019

Contractor draws lessons from Northwestern Mutual project

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:12 pm

When local officials gathered recently in a gravel parking lot in what used to be a farm field off Braun Road in Mount Pleasant to mark the arrival of construction equipment at the Foxconn Technology Group site and reflect on the progress made in the past year, they had a point – a lot has been accomplished.

It was April 28, 2017 when Gov. Scott Walker first met with Foxconn chairman Terry Gou. A year later, the project has been moving ahead at a breakneck pace. Just three months passed from the initial meeting to the announcement of a deal. A site was picked by October and Walker and Gou signed a contract in November.

Renderings of the Foxconn plant included in presentations to contractors.

Even in the week before the one-year anniversary, the project gained approvals for air emissions and the withdrawal of Lake Michigan water, Mount Pleasant transferred land to the company, and the first subcontractors were named.

“The timeline for this project has been unlike anything we’ve ever imagined,” said David DeGroot, Mount Pleasant village president.

Critics, of which the Foxconn project has plenty, would say the deal came together too quickly, special session legislation was rushed through and the project favored speed over environmental protections.

But preparing an 800-acre site for a 22-million-square-foot LCD manufacturing campus takes time. Construction leaders say it will take until August 2019 to move the 4 million cubic yards of dirt needed to prepare the site.

The actual construction of buildings could begin later this year or early next year, said Adam Jelen, senior vice president at Providence, Rhode Island-based Gilbane Building Co. Gilbane is one half of the M+W|Gilbane joint venture selected to lead construction on the Foxconn project. German firm M+W Group GmbH, a top builder of clean room facilities, is the other.

Part of the challenge Foxconn faces is figuring out how to adapt its manufacturing process from Asia to the United States. Company executives have said they will have to do things completely differently in the U.S. to make the project work.

Building the Foxconn campus will require an estimated 10,000 workers annually once construction is fully underway. The site preparation work getting underway now will max out with about 400 workers on-site.

Two subcontractors were named in April. Black River Falls-based Hoffman Construction Co. was chosen for work on site excavation, storm water management and erosion control, while Gestra Engineering Inc. of Milwaukee was selected for soil testing work.

Another 26 subcontractors were announced May 7. All but one is based in Wisconsin and 80 percent of the workforce will be from the state.

Those figures represent a solid start to M+W|Gilbane meeting its inclusion and diversity goals for the project. The company is hoping to have 60 percent of the work done by Wisconsin-based businesses, including 10 percent by Racine County firms. Ten percent would also come from minority-, woman- or veteran-owned businesses. 

The workforce goals include 70 percent of work hours performed by Wisconsin residents, with an emphasis on those from Racine County. Ten percent of the hours would be worked by minorities, women and veterans.

Jelen says the plan is custom-designed for the project to put Wisconsin first, but it’s also built on lessons from other projects, like the Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons in Milwaukee.

On the Northwestern Mutual project, the city’s financial support for the project came with the requirement that 40 percent of hours on the project be worked by under- or unemployed participants in Milwaukee’s Residents Preference Program. RPP participants eventually accounted for 795,882 work hours, or 43.5 percent of all hours.

By contrast, just the projects awarded in the first bid package for Foxconn will require 500,000 work hours. A Foxconn-commissioned analysis by Ernst & Young estimated the construction work for the entire project would require 40,935 worker years. At 40 hours per week, that figure would amount to more than 85 million work hours.

Jelen said the Northwestern Mutual experience showed him it was important to have strong communications from the start, which he said is why M+W|Gilbane and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. combined to hold 14 information sessions around the state in April. Nearly 2,000 businesses attended those sessions and roughly 900 registered to bid on Foxconn work.

The other lesson from Northwestern Mutual was the importance of understanding the available workforce and business capacity and then targeting training for the project.

Some have questioned whether the plans go far enough. Milwaukee Alderwoman Milele Coggs asked Jelen at a recent committee meeting why the targets were set low, especially considering the combination of minorities, women and veterans.

“It’s based on the capacity that’s available in the marketplace,” Jelen replied.

Foxconn’s targets were set by the company and M+W|Gilbane, but the contract with the state does not set any requirements for hiring Wisconsinites or minorities.

Marjorie Rucker, executive director of The Business Council in Milwaukee and a representative of the Ethnically Diverse Business Coalition, acknowledged at a contractor information session in Milwaukee that it requires faith in Gilbane to follow through on the targets.

“It’s faith, but it’s also trust in us both knowing where the rubber meets the road and where we need to intersect to make sure this goes right,” she said.

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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