It was heralded a year and a half ago as the start of a Midwestern manufacturing renaissance: Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronics behemoth, would build a $10 billion Wisconsin plant to make flat-screen televisions, creating 13,000 jobs. President Trump later touted the project as “the eighth wonder of the world.”
Now that prospect looks less certain.
Pointing to “new realities” in the market, the company said Wednesday that it was reassessing the plans, underscoring the difficult economics of manufacturing in the United States. “The global market environment that existed when the project was first announced has changed,” Foxconn said in a statement.
Company officials had signaled for months that their emphasis was increasingly on research and development rather than large-scale production, dampening the potential for blue-collar job creation.
That turn runs counter to Mr. Trump’s vision for the project, which he had cited as a milestone in reversing the decline in factory jobs. The twist also brought new friction in Wisconsin, where the initiative has been politically fraught from the start because of its billions of dollars in tax subsidies.
Foxconn said that it remained committed to creating 13,000 jobs in Wisconsin and that it was “moving forward with plans to build an advanced manufacturing facility.” But it did not address the share of jobs to be devoted to production, and economists questioned how such a large work force could be created if the plant’s focus was on other areas.
A White House spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
The Foxconn statement followed a Reuters report that Louis Woo, a special assistant to the company’s chairman, Terry Gou, had said the costs of manufacturing screens for televisions and other consumer products were too high in the United States.
“In terms of TV, we have no place in the U.S.,” Mr. Woo told Reuters. “We can’t compete.”
Mr. Trump’s campaign promise to revitalize American manufacturing was considered an important factor in his capturing Wisconsin and other battleground states in 2016. Yet the cost of luring Foxconn set off a partisan battle in Wisconsin that extended into the midterm elections last year, when Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, was defeated.
Mr. Walker and state lawmakers had agreed to more than $4 billion in tax credits and other inducements over a 15-year period, an unusually high figure, for a plant in Mount Pleasant, near Racine.
Wisconsin residents have had mixed feelings about the investment, polls show. And early on, economists questioned whether the large-scale manufacturing plant and the thousands of jobs would come to fruition. The increasing focus on research raised new doubts about the scale of hiring — economists said that strategy could produce a smaller number of higher-paying jobs.
“There aren’t that many R&D facilities in the world with 13,000 people,” said Susan Helper, an economist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
During the fall campaign, Wisconsin Democrats held up the Foxconn pursuit as evidence that Republicans were focused on businesses, not ordinary people — and too willing to hand out state funds to a single company.
Defending their eight years in power, Republicans countered that the plant would re-establish Wisconsin’s strength as a manufacturing hub, and residents in the southeastern part of the state, closest to the plant, were especially receptive.
On Wednesday, reports of Foxconn’s reassessment set off a new round in that political fight. Republicans who control Wisconsin’s Legislature suggested that the arrival of Gov. Tony Evers, the Democrat who ousted Mr. Walker, was partly to blame.
“The company is reacting to the wave of economic uncertainty that the new governor has brought with his administration,” said a statement from the Assembly’s speaker, Robin Vos, and the Senate’s majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald. “Governor Evers has an anti-jobs agenda.”
Mr. Evers, who took office this month, has indicated that he would not block the Foxconn project, although he and other Democrats called it regrettable.
“This deal was reckless from the beginning,” said Martha Laning, the state’s Democratic chairwoman. “Despite multiple red flags throughout the negotiation process, Wisconsin Republicans put taxpayers on the line for $4.5 billion and rewrote the entire rule book for an election-year talking point.”
The plans for the plant — including what it would produce, and the composition of its work force — have changed over time. Tim Sheehy, president of greater Milwaukee’s chamber of commerce, said Foxconn had initially believed that 70 percent of its hires would be for “plant floor” jobs and 30 percent in design and engineering. Now, he said, those proportions have flipped.
Foxconn’s agreement with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation “does protect the state to some extent if Foxconn falls short of promised job creation,” said Timothy Bartik, an economist for the Upjohn Institute in Kalamazoo, Mich. “But the capital investment tax credit, in particular, does not seem to fully adjust for this if Foxconn ends up doing a much less job-intensive and more capital-intensive project.”
At this point, the cost to taxpayers across the state is likely minimal. The company has said it will forfeit tax credits for 2018 because it fell short of the hiring target on which they were based. The company did receive a sales-tax exemption on some purchases of material, Mr. Bartik said.
The village of Mount Pleasant and Racine County have borne most of the preliminary costs. According to Michael Farren, a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Virginia, Mount Pleasant had acquired 85 percent of the initial 1,200 acres intended for the factory through eminent domain, and turned over at least 65 percent of the land to Foxconn.
Local officials pointed out that Foxconn had already invested $200 million in Wisconsin and built a 120,000-square-foot structure.
But others noted that the company had failed to follow through on grand proposals in the past. It announced in 2013 that it would invest $30 million in a high-tech factory in Pennsylvania that would create 500 jobs. The factory never materialized.
The company laid out ambitious plans in Brazil, too — for 100,000 jobs. That project was mostly left on the table.
“Foxconn has a history of not delivering on its jobs and manufacturing commitments that it’s made,” said Megan Randall, a research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington. “These types of instances are exactly why accountability measures are so important in state and local tax-incentive deals.”
Mr. Bartik said Foxconn’s rationale about changing global conditions was puzzling.
“It is hard for me to see how global conditions have dramatically changed the competitive position of the U.S.’s labor costs in producing flat-screen TVs from when the project was announced in 2017,” he said. Wage growth has accelerated as the labor market has tightened in the past year and a half, but increases have been modest.
It could mean that “this project will end up mostly being a R&D operation in Madison, with a much smaller factory in southeast Wisconsin,” Mr. Bartik said.