By Lawrence Tabak
Photography by Kevin J. Miyazaki
On the evening of March 20 a full room of Racine County residents assembled to make and hear public statements before the board of the Community Development Authority of Mt. Pleasant, Wisconsin. One item was on the agenda: the board’s first step in the designation of some 3,000 acres of agricultural land, farm houses and scattered, neatly maintained single-family homes as “blighted.” It would be the final step for the local authorities — vital cogs in the Foxconn-booster leadership chain that runs from local Tea Party officials, to Governor Scott Walker, and all the way up to President Donald Trump — to fulfill the promise to Taiwanese tech giant Foxconn to obtain and then turn over the land for their proposed industrial complex. Some of the homeowners who had received eminent domain notifications back in October held property that came under the well-established protocols for roadway easements as rural roads would be expanded into four-lane or more highways to accommodate Foxconn. But many were well off these grids.
Speakers were reminded that they were limited to three minutes but had 15 days to submit their objections in writing.
“The Village is telling us our land is worthless, while at the same time you’re telling Foxconn it’s the best property in the world. I don’t know how any of you guys can sit here and do this.”
Joe Janacek, in his late 50s, sporting a graying mustache and a crew-neck sweater, looked uncomfortable as he walked to the podium carrying a single sheet of paper. “I’ve lived in my home for 28 years,” he read to the board. “I’m a tax-paying citizen and I deserve better than this, to just be kicked to the curb and thrown out of my residence.”
Connie Richards stood with her taller husband, as expressionless as the farming couple in Grant Wood’s American Gothic. “It will be a sad day when the wrecking ball demolishes the house and buildings we have put our hearts and soul into.”
Robby Jensen, his voice breaking with emotion, pointed at the board as he said, “The Village is telling us our land is worthless, while at the same time you’re telling Foxconn it’s the best property in the world. I don’t know how any of you guys can sit here and do this.”
Most of the speakers were homeowners who were still holding out hope that they could keep their properties, or at least obtain better offers. Others were just frustrated that they had yet to receive offers despite months having passed since the village-sponsored auditors had completed their assessments. They spoke of their history in these homes, the care and expense they’d lavished on their properties. Many brought pictures. “We spent our life savings on this thing, and now we gotta move,” said Alfredo Ortiz, an 18-year resident. “It’s an insult,” he added, reflecting the general mood of the testimonies. It was extremely personal for these residents; having your carefully maintained residence, or in at least one case, recently built dream home, designated as blighted.
The one speaker from outside the area was Anthony Sanders, from the Minneapolis-based law firm Institute for Justice. His firm contains some of the leading eminent domain experts in the country. After reviewing the statutory backdrop Sanders looked directly at the CDA board and told them, “Make no mistake. If there is a legal challenge, you will lose. You will not be able to take these people’s homes.”
Sanders’s firm argued one of the most important eminent domain cases in history, Kelo v. New London, before the Supreme Court. This landmark 2005 case, decided 5-4, upheld the local Connecticut municipality’s right to condemn property for commercial development. In its wake, 42 states passed eminent domain legislation to clarify the process, mostly with the goal of protecting property owners from what many felt was government overreach, a prospect which disturbed people across the political spectrum. Institute for Justice is a pro bono firm, funded by donors and foundations and not the clients they represent.
Sanders explained how he came to be at the March 20 meeting in Mt. Pleasant. “We’ve been involved in some eminent domain cases in Wisconsin so Foxconn was on our radar. One of the property owners reached out to us as did a couple of attorneys representing homeowners. Based on our experience with Wisconsin law we knew the Village would have to do a blight designation.”
The main complication in condemning the entire, sprawling 4.5-square-mile area is how specific Wisconsin law is regarding blight. For instance, one of the qualifying criteria is a crime rate three times the rate of the surrounding community, a criteria which is nonsensical for the designated Foxconn property. Or the clause that seems to directly subvert the goal of giving the land to Foxconn, which reads: “Property that is not blighted property may not be acquired by condemnation by an entity authorized to condemn … if the condemnor intends to convey or lease the acquired property to a private entity.”
Later in conversation Sanders was blunt. “This is a textbook case of eminent domain abuse.” When he considered the local authority’s promise to Foxconn to have all the land in hand by August 1, 2018, Sanders said there were two possibilities: “Either they sold Foxconn a bill of goods or they’ve retained the financial resources to make some huge offers.” Offers, one is tempted to say, that homeowners can’t refuse.
“This is a textbook case of eminent domain abuse.”
Also testifying was Christy Hall, a criminal defense attorney who lives within the condemnation zone. She pilloried the local government for issuing her a building permit and allowing the construction of a major improvement to her house in the period between their initial discussions with Foxconn and the public announcement. “You let it happen,” she stated bitterly. “Even though you knew this was coming.”
Affected homeowners we spoke to said the Village has yet to release their offers, even though the Village assessors have long completed their work. At one point Village officials talked about offers at 140 percent the pre-Foxconn property values, even as they were in the process of buying local farms for five times or more the previous going rate. If the Village doesn’t resolve its homeowner offers, which many fear will be lower than replacement cost, Sanders sees it headed for court. It could get ugly. It’s hard to know just how property holdouts would affect the Foxconn project, with construction on their first million-square-foot assembly facility scheduled to start this spring. It does recall the common metaphor a number of residents had used to describe the speed and magnitude of Foxconn’s arrival. “It’s a freight train,” they said. It seems unlikely that anyone will prosper by stepping into its path.
Meanwhile, with little fanfare and purposeful stealth, Foxconn has already arrived. No Foxconn signs banner their first Wisconsin production facility, a large Costco-sized rented warehouse just off I-94 in Mt. Pleasant, a few miles up the road from their future home. Most of the workers are assembly laborers making $14/hour, but no ads for assembly workers have been posted by Foxconn. When I stopped by in January the parking lot had a couple dozen older cars and battered pickups with Wisconsin and Illinois plates, along with a half dozen cars from Indiana. The workers were busy inside assembling TVs under the auspices of managers and technicians who had cut their teeth at Foxconn’s largest existing U.S. operation in Plainfield, Indiana, outside Indianapolis. It was a first glance at what Wisconsin might be seeing in terms of employment when the company expands operations into its first buildings, scheduled to be open for business within a year.
We know from Foxconn-filed documents that they project three-fourths of their labor force to be hourly workers. We also know that the project was sold by Gov. Walker and his administration as a source of “13,000 family supporting” jobs. While this initial assembly plant can’t be projected across the entire future Foxconn complex, we know that $14/hour is a far cry from the promised average annual salary of $54,000, far enough that instead of family-supporting, it would likely qualify families for food stamps, housing assistance and state-supported health care.
When asked where you could apply for an assembler job a worker gave me the name of a staffing company. “I went through their Chicago office,” he said, an early indicator that contradicted the booster promises that the workforce would be almost entirely Wisconsinite, even though the factory site is just a nine-minute drive from the Illinois border. The premise of large numbers of Wisconsin residents making $54,000 a year is fundamental to the state of Wisconsin’s payback calendar for the $3 billion it gave Foxconn, which was originally, and highly optimistically, calculated to be about 25 years. In fact, all the workers I talked to were being employed by temporary agencies rather than Foxconn directly, a pattern we’d seen in their other U.S. locales.
Back in October, in Mt. Pleasant, I spoke with a Foxconn employee on hand at one of the first public introductions to the project. Like the supervisors at the TV assembly plant he was from the Indiana facility. I asked if they still used a lot of temp workers back in Plainfield.
“We do!” he exclaimed, as if pleasantly surprised by my interest and knowledge. “But we’re working on getting them integrated more quickly into Foxconn employment. It’s been taking around two years.”
In our previous stories about Foxconn in Wisconsin, we looked at the likely disappointments in the jobs Foxconn would create for Wisconsinites, the flawed investment case and negotiation process, and the environmental and social disasters impending for local residents. On all accounts, we found Wisconsin’s $3 billion investment in Foxconn destined to disappoint Wisconsinites. The manner in which Racine County residents are being evicted and the employment realities thus far of Foxconn’s new TV assembly plant in Mt. Pleasant give us no reason to revise our judgment.
Lawrence Tabak is a writer based in Madison, Wis. His work has appeared in Fast Company, Forbes, and The Atlantic Monthly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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