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Greater Columbus nearly landed $4.2 billion Foxconn project, former executive says

The Columbus Dispatch - Mark Williams

Apr 14, 2022

Back in the summer of 2017, 10 days before Foxconn's splashy White House announcement that it had picked Wisconsin for its $10 billion investment in the U.S., the Asian electronics giant had struck another deal...

Back in the summer of 2017, 10 days before Foxconn's splashy White House announcement that it had picked Wisconsin for its $10 billion investment in the U.S., the Asian electronics giant had struck another deal.

This one was with Ohio and while not the size of the Wisconsin project, it was big — a $4.2 billion investment in Madison Township in Pickaway County near Rickenbacker International Airport that would have created 5,200 jobs, according to a new book by a former Foxconn executive. It would have been the biggest foreign investment in Ohio since Honda, according to "Flying Eagle."

In return, the state would pony up incentives totaling $2.5 billion over the life of the project, not counting any assistance Ohio would provide for construction or land costs. That's more than what has been offered to Intel for its $20 billion investment in Licking County.

"The state of Ohio and JobsOhio believed the 868 project would be transformational because it would make such a massive difference in the economic future of the entire region," former Foxconn executive Alan Yeung wrote in the book. Yeung led Foxconn's effort to bring electronics manufacturing back to the U.S., which it dubbed "Project Flying Eagle."

Ohio and Foxconn: What happened?

At the time, there was widespread speculation that Ohio was in the running for a Foxconn project separate from what it was planning for Wisconsin and that spots near Rickenbacker were under consideration, sources told The Dispatch at the time.

But the book lays out more details about the potential deal and all the sites where Foxconn looked in Ohio.

The letter of intent that Foxconn signed on July 17, 2017, with the state and JobsOhio, the state's economic development organization, was as far as the deal went, according to the book.

Yeung, Foxconn's U.S. director of strategic initiatives at the time, said in the book and an interview that business conditions changed, and that's why the Ohio factory didn't go forward.

"It was an opportunity lost," he wrote in the book. "During 2018 and thereafter, Foxconn maintained contact with Ohio; however, we wanted to concentrate our horsepower in Wisconsin. We had to make Wisconsin work first."

Foxconn picked Wisconsin for the $10 billion plant to make LCD screens for electronic products. The plant was to provide 3,000 jobs to start, with the potential for that number to grow to as many as 13,000 in the years ahead.

Since then, the investment has been scaled back dramatically.

Foxconn, also called Hon Hai Precision Industries, is now expected to invest up to $672 million by 2026. The promise of 13,000 jobs has been reduced to 1,454.

JobsOhio has refused to acknowledge Ohio's effort to woo Foxconn. Even today.

"We do not comment on confidential project information mentioned in third-party publications," spokesman Matt Englehart said in a statement. "However, JobsOhio operates in a fast-paced, highly competitive environment. Our private structure provides a unique advantage as we compete daily against other states and nations to attract jobs and investment for the people of Ohio."

Then-Gov. John Kasich did acknowledge the obvious about a month later on Aug. 15 in New Albany, where Facebook was officially announcing its plans to build a data center there.

"We are pitching Foxconn. We hope they will make something here," he said then.

Foxconn, which makes Apple's iPhone and other products for electronics companies, officially said that June that Ohio was one of several states that the company was considering for its first U.S. investment.

But by then, Yeung's book said Foxconn's search in the U.S. was well underway with Wisconsin and Ohio emerging as the top states.

Former Foxconn chairman Terry Gou met Kasich in April while Gou was in Washington with other Foxconn executives to lay out Foxconn's plans with President Trump, Trump family members and other members of the administration.

Foxconn eventually looked at sites near Cincinnati, in Toledo and the Youngstown area in Ohio, he said.

Executives went to Kent State University, because of its advanced research in liquid crystal display technology, and the Cleveland Clinic, which Yeung said appealed to Foxconn's interest in health care, life science and biotech. They also went to Marysville to visit a Honda factory.

But the top two sites in Ohio were one near Rickenbacker and another in the area where semiconductor company Intel has said it will invest $20 billion to build two factories on land to be annexed into New Albany.

"We looked at Columbus as the prime location," he said.

He said the company made at least six visits to Ohio in 2017 and '18.

"We liked this location in Columbus because it was amid robust logistics and distribution infrastructure that was about to get better," he said in the book of the Rickenbacker location.

After signing the letter of intent, the parties had until Sept. 30 to finalize the deal.

The goal was to build a plant that would make glass substrates for automotive, defense, homeland security, entertainment, medical and educational markets, according to the book.

"It just didn't happen," Yeung said. "It was very unfortunate."

Without elaborating, Yeung blamed changing market conditions and business environment for why the project didn't move forward.

One of the changes was two-term Wisconsin incumbent Gov. Scott Walker's loss to Democrat Tony Evers last November. Evers negotiated a new deal with Foxconn that reflected Foxconn's smaller investment than it originally promised in Wisconsin.

Foxconn has since made an investment in Ohio, buying the old General Motors plant in northeast Ohio in Lordstown from electric truck company Lordstown Motors for $230 million along with $50 million in company stock.

Yeung wouldn't rule out a future Foxconn investment in Greater Columbus

"This company plays a very long term game in terms of investment and serving their clients," he said.

Kasich, Foxconn's Gou relationship has rough start

Gou's first visit with Kasich in Washington in April didn't go well, according to the book.

Gou was late and Kasich had a trip planned for Philadelphia for a book signing. When Gou finally arrived, Kasich told him where he was headed.

"How could you have time to write a book, let alone to do book tours and give speeches, while you are the governor of Ohio and have a state to run?" Gou told him.

Yeung and officials from JobsOhio at the meeting where floored by Gou's comment.

Yeung said Gou's relationship with Kasich did improve, and the two became close over time. Kasich was part of a trip to Japan made by Ohio officials to a Foxconn factory that June where Kasich and Gou hit it off and became friends, he said.

"Once they got to know each other, they admired each other and recognized the possibility of making history," he said.

Mark Williams

The Columbus Dispatch

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