MOUNT PLEASANT — Just a little more than a year after he first hinted at the massive deal, President Donald Trump visited Wisconsin on Thursday for the groundbreaking of a project Gov. Scott Walker has said will "transform" the state.
"Congratulations on truly one of the eighth wonders, I think we can say, the eighth wonder of the world. This is the eighth wonder of the world," Trump told a crowd of hundreds.
In a meandering speech that touched on tax cuts, Obamacare, Harley-Davidson, the U.S. Supreme Court and tariffs, Trump praised Walker for closing the deal to bring Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn to Wisconsin. The president called Walker an "unbelievably talented guy."
"I gave Scott the ball. If that were football standards, NFL standards, he ran 2,000 yards in one game," Trump said during a ceremony at Foxconn's Opus building. "I hope he doesn’t run against me, because that comment will come back to haunt me. He is a special talent and a special person."
Machines whirred and screens flashed throughout an elaborate display of the technological capabilities of Foxconn's planned 20 million-square-foot campus, on which ground was ceremonially broken Thursday afternoon. Politicians and members of the business community were greeted by Foxconn employees and other vendors who displayed the facility's production lines and the potential applications of the liquid crystal display (LCD) panels that will be made in southeastern Wisconsin.
Matthew Zamora, a 34-year-old Kenosha resident who works as a crane operator at Foxconn, demonstrated his work assembling flatscreen televisions. Zamora, who started with the company in March, said he's excited by the prospect of the company's eventual development of fully automated systems.
"I like where Foxconn is going," he said, adding that he's not concerned automation will threaten his job. "They still do need human employees to actually program and run the machines."
Walker told the crowd that Foxconn will transform Wisconsin the way Microsoft transformed the state of Washington.
"This will make us a brain gain state, not a brain drain state," Walker said. "Foxconn will help us keep more of our graduates in this state and attract even more millennials to the great state of Wisconsin."
As the waited to hear from Trump, Walker, Foxconn CEO Terry Gou and House Speaker Paul Ryan, attendees were served snacks — including "cannibal sandwiches," a Wisconsin dish typically served at Christmas and New Year's — by both humans and robots, and given hats bearing the "Wisconn Valley" designation Walker gave the Racine area when the multibillion-dollar deal was announced.
Wisconsin's deal with Foxconn is the largest subsidy to a foreign company in U.S. history. The company best known for manufacturing Apple iPhones has promised to invest $10 billion to build an LCD panel manufacturing plant that will create between 3,000 and 13,000 jobs. In exchange, the state will offer about $3 billion in refundable tax credits delivered on a "pay as you grow" basis tied to job creation and capital investment benchmarks. If the company fails to meet certain benchmarks, benefits may be clawed back.
The company is required to pay an average annual salary of $53,875 in order to qualify for state tax credits.
In addition to offering tax credits, Wisconsin has also agreed to relax some environmental regulations and change the process for legal appeals for the company. The state is expected to break even on the deal in 2043, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Gou, the company's CEO, thanked both Trump and Walker, praising Trump as a president who "understands three things: jobs, jobs, jobs."
Support for the deal in Wisconsin is mixed. A Marquette University Law School poll released last week found that 46 percent of Wisconsin voters believe the state is paying more than the deal is worth, and 61 percent of voters don't expect businesses outside the greater Milwaukee area to benefit from the company's presence. But 56 percent of voters throughout the state think it will bring significant economic improvement to southeastern Wisconsin.
Legislation paving the way for the deal was approved last year primarily along party lines, with just five Democrats — all of whom represent the area where the campus will be built — joining Republicans in supporting it. Three Republicans opposed it.
Several Democrats running for governor have said that, if elected, they would either break the contract or find a way to renegotiate it.
Democrats who have opposed the deal drew attention on Thursday to the news that Foxconn will scale back the size and scope of its first factory. The company said it is still committed to fulfilling its contractual obligations and will build a larger factory in its second phase of construction. The shift was initially reported last month.
The first phase will produce LCD panels to be used in TVs, self-driving cars, notebooks and monitors, "and in the fields of education, entertainment, health care, advanced manufacturing systems, office automation, interactive retail and safety, among many others," the company said last month.
"I think now is the time to investigate just what to do about this and see if this is a material breach of this contract. If it is, then a suit should be brought," said Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, who ended his campaign for governor last week, on a call with reporters.
Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, called the deal "nothing more than a bait-and-switch."
The president's visit to Wisconsin came just days after Harley-Davidson's announcement that it will start producing motorcycles bound for Europe overseas to alleviate the impact of European tariffs on the Milwaukee company's products. Trump aimed threats at the company on Twitter, warning that if it follows through it will be "taxed like never before."
He addressed the company again during his speech at the Foxconn facility, during which he extolled his efforts to level the trade playing field for American farmers and industries.
"Harley-Davidson, please build those beautiful motorcycles in the USA, OK? Don’t get cute with us. Don’t get cute," he said.
Trump attended a fundraiser for Wisconsin Republicans in Milwaukee before traveling 30 miles down the road for the Foxconn groundbreaking ceremony. Voces de la Frontera, an immigration rights group, protested Trump's immigration policy in Milwaukee on Thursday morning, temporarily blocking traffic.
Other groups and politicians protested Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and the Foxconn deal at events in Racine and Mount Pleasant.