PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt.
So there’s this tiny town in Wisconsin called Mount Pleasant. Population’s just 26,000 people, technically it’s a village. And life in Mount Pleasant is usually as quiet as you’d expect. They’re a suburb of Racine, home of malted milk and the site of some of America’s largest cabbage farms. But that’s the city. Mount Pleasant’s the suburb–place where nothing really happens. Until last year, when the village became the site of a completely unprecedented, massive international experiment.
Sruthi Pinnamaneni’s gonna tell the story.
SRUTHI: This fall, I went to Mount Pleasant to meet this woman named Kelly Gallaher.
KELLY GALLAHER: Hey, guys.
SRUTHI: Hi, Kelly.
KELLY: Come on in.
SRUTHI: She lives in this ivy-covered split-level house.
KELLY: My home is located about, a little bit over a mile from, from Lake Michigan. So, uh--
SRUTHI: I just saw it.
KELLY: Did you see it?
SRUTHI: I just saw it. I’ll bet–
KELLY: It’s beautiful!
SRUTHI: It's really beautiful out here by Racine. It’s–it has like a very light blue, almost there’s like a Caribbean vibe to it.
KELLY: Right, well, it's all about the light. I think it's magical. I think, I even like how the lake looks on my GPS (laughs). I like it that much.
SRUTHI: Kelly has been here for thirty years, and she used to be an arts educator, but now she's basically retired.
SRUTHI: When did you start getting involved in, kind of, more, I don’t know what to call it. Activism? Or just kind of village, what would you call it?
KELLY: Well, I don’t know if there is a name of it. I think other people have a lot of names for, for what I do. But (laughs)–
SRUTHI: Like bad names?
KELLY: Yeah, yeah. Ones I probably wouldn’t care to repeat.
SRUTHI: The polite name Kelly’s detractors might use for her is busybody. She’s an extremely vocal participant in the town’s local democracy, and her main stage is this place called the Village Hall.
DEGROOT: OK, the hour is upon us, I would like to open the village board meeting to order.
TRUSTEE: Pledge of allegiance...
SRUTHI: Village Hall, which sits right next to the local Y, is where the residents of Mount Pleasant all gather twice a month with their village government to talk about all the local issues that need fixing.
CAROL: There are weeds this high in the yard of one of the vacant homes. This high. It’s been vacant for, I don’t know, how many years, Gayle? Four years it’s been vacant.
TRUSTEE: We're going to have some recommendations and numbers for the Lake Park Bluff erosion, which is very, very important, probably number one on our agenda–
TRUSTEE: Our softball game we had this last Sunday for the Case Athletics. That went over very well too. I didn't get any reports of injuries, so we're good.
OTHER TRUSTEE: There were pictures in the paper though.
SRUTHI: In Racine County, the Mount Pleasant Village Hall meetings are famous, very well attended. They actually tape the meetings and upload them to the website. And if you’re like me and have watched every single one, you will look forward to the moment when Kelly--
KELLY: (In meeting) Good evening, my name is Kelly Gallaher.
SRUTHI: --red hair, hoop earrings, steps up to the mic.
KELLY: (In meeting) Police Captain Brian Smith collected 33,714 dollars in overtime pay, in addition to his salary, vacation...
SRUTHI: Kelly is basically the local civics watchdog.
KELLY: (In meeting) Joint parks has had no minutes published since April 2014…
SRUTHI: Almost every week she uses her allotted her three minutes to make it very clear to the people in power that she has her eye on them.
KELLY: (In meeting) --is outrageous even by Mount Pleasant standards (DEGROOT: Mrs. Gallaher). It’s called corruption and we intend to get to the bottom of it. Thank you.
DEGROOT: Thank you for your weekly sunshine and good cheer.
[MUSIC — Neutral Satoshi]
SRUTHI: That man, who sounds very exasperated, that is Dave DeGroot, village president. He is sitting behind this big long table in this large office chair at the center of the screen, and he’s flanked on both sides by his six village trustees.
Dave runs this meeting. Dave and Kelly do not like each other. They disagree on pretty much every single thing to do with the future of Mount Pleasant.
Kelly even has a sign on her front lawn that says, “David DeGroot Must Resign.” And David DeGroot lives ten doors down from her.
It’s an intense block. And Kelly told me that it got especially bad about a year ago when she was helping Dave’s opponent in the village election.
KELLY: The previous March when he was running for office, he sent out a press release basically accusing me of egging his house (laughs).
SRUTHI: Egging his house?
KELLY: Egging his house, yes! Yes, he filed a police report and suggested in his press release that I had been involved in the attack, the political and actual literal egg attack on his home, which the police report did not verify at all. In fact, it was, they described it as, as teenagers and a single egg that was tossed on his driveway. It was hardly an attack. I was not there. I only buy organic eggs, which are far too expensive to throw at anyone's house, let alone someone I don't like. It was, it was ridiculous. So it was fair to say that my relationship was, with him, was contentious. I think he's a fool and a terrible village president.
DEGROOT: (In meeting) Something that really disturbed me...
SRUTHI: And, like everything else in Mount Pleasant, this fight too was aired out in the next village board meeting.
DEGROOT: (In meeting) Um, they didn’t egg anybody else’s house, so I’m assuming, you know, that I was specifically targeted. I don’t know if it was of a political nature or not...
SRUTHI: Up until the summer of 2017, that is what meetings were like in Mount Pleasant Village Hall.
And then something much bigger arrived. This decision the village had to make where the only thing anybody could agree on was that whatever they chose, it would completely transform their village.
Kelly says the whole thing started around this time when a friend of hers who owns this large tract of farmland called and told her, “This really weird thing just happened.”
KELLY: And she said, “Kelly, I, some real estate people just knocked on my door and said they want me to sign this option, and I don't know what to do.”
SRUTHI: How much were they offering her for the land?
KELLY: I believe that she said that, that they were going to offer her 30,000 dollars an acre for her land.
SRUTHI: And, and is that number unusual for this area?
KELLY: Yes. Her acreage at resale at the time would probably maybe be 3,000 to 5,000 dollars an acre–
SRUTHI: So this is like 10 times that.
KELLY: Yes, so, this is, this is a huge jump, and it was so big, you know, she didn't even know what to do.
[MUSIC— Darkest Valleys]
SRUTHI: At the same time, Kelly is also getting calls from all her friends who work in the local government. And they’re saying--
KELLY: Something's coming. Something's happening. It's really, really big. It's going to be enormous. It's going to be giant.
SRUTHI: Everybody is assuming that it has to be some kind of development that needs a lot of land. You know, and they’re theorizing about what it could be, and of course they’re waiting in anticipation for the next village meeting.
DEGROOT: (In meeting) OK, we’ll call the village board meeting Monday, 6:30 p.m., to order.
SRUTHI: And so, they show up at Village Hall, and there’s no announcement. In fact, nothing is said about it at all. And then, President DeGroot makes a motion to go into closed session.
DEGROOT: (In meeting) Roll call, please.
KOHLHAGEN: Havn [HAVN: Aye], Feest [FEEST: Aye], Hewitt [HEWITT: Aye], Otwaska [OTWASKA: Aye], Hansen [HANSEN: Aye], DeGroot.
DEGROOT: Aye. We’re in closed session.
[AMBI OF GAVEL GETTING CUT OFF]
SRUTHI: The video cuts off right at that moment. DeGroot and the trustees walk out of the room.
And the village residents sit there waiting for like an hour and a half until they come back.
MAN 1: Mr. President, I make a motion to go back into Open Session.
MAN 2: Second.
DEGROOT: We're back open and the report out from the Village of Mount Pleasant is we had an interesting conversation about, uh, potential future cooperation between the villages regarding future development.
SRUTHI: “Future development.” That’s all DeGroot would say.
SRUTHI: How did that make you feel?
KELLY: Well, working with elected officials or having friends who are elected officials, you know, there's always that respect for what they can say and what they can’t say.
But I could just tell that it was extraordinary. You know, there was something in their eyes. There was an urgency in what they were saying that this was perhaps possibly too big.
SRUTHI: So everybody wants to know, like, what is this possibly too big thing? Is it going to be an Amazon warehouse? A Tesla plant? And they just cannot get the village government to say anything.
And then, one day, they get the news not from town hall, not from Dave DeGroot, but from the President of the United States.
DONALD TRUMP: This is a great day for American workers and manufacturing and for everyone who believes in the concept and the label Made in the USA (applause).
SRUTHI: Trump at the White House announces that a major company is coming to Wisconsin. And that company is Foxconn.
[MUSIC — “Going to Troy”]
TRUMP: Foxconn, a world leader in manufacturing for computers, communications, and consumer electronics. One of the truly great companies of the world...
SRUTHI: The deal that Trump is announcing is actually not at all done…... none of the details have been hashed out, nothing is signed.
But nobody in the village knows that, and they immediately have all these questions. If they’ve heard of Foxconn, what they know is, either this is a company that makes iPhones or that they’re notorious for the way they treat their factory workers.
NEWS 1: Thousands of Chinese workers staged a one-day strike Friday at the Foxconn factory known for poorly treating workers who help make Apple products, such as the iPhone.
NEWS 2: Apple CEO Steve Jobs says he’s very troubled by a string of suicides at Foxconn.
NEWS 3: Fatigue and boredom are common in any factory, but this one is surrounded by suicide nets. They are everywhere.
SRUTHI: When these stories came out years ago, Foxconn's reputation in this country was damaged, like it’s still the thing they’re known for. But in the rest of the world, Foxconn is known for being this multibillion dollar company with these megafactories all over Asia. There’s one that employs 200,000 people. The entire population of Mount Pleasant: 26,000.
And Trump is saying, this is the company that’s going to prove that you can bring jobs back to the U.S.
TRUMP: To make such an incredible investment, Chairman Gou put his faith and confidence in the future of the American economy. In other words, if I didn't get elected, he definitely would not be spending 10 billion dollars (applause).
SRUTHI: Trump says that Foxconn has committed to building an LCD panel factory somewhere in Wisconsin. And the full project area would be massive. Like, this would be one of the biggest factory compounds in the entire country.
So back in Mount Pleasant, everyone’s thinking, that must be us. Some people are excited and other people, like Kelly, are wondering, why would they come here? And where are they gonna find all this space for that kind of factory?
[MUSIC — “CONCERTING CLARINETS”]
And so, they take all these feelings to the place they’ve always taken them–Village Hall.
SHANNON: (In meeting) I come before the board today to talk about the same subject everyone has been for the last three months: Foxconn. As you can tell by my address, I am one of those who are probably going to lose my house. But then again no one knows where this is going, right?
MIKE: (In meeting) Guys we’ve been dealt a wonderful hand here. We just gotta play it right. This is critical to guys like me who operate small businesses in Mount Pleasant. We need this.
MICHAEL: (In meeting) There are better, less expensive ways for Wisconsin to help build a robust economy that creates good-paying jobs.
SRUTHI: The biggest deal in America is being debated in this fluorescent-lit, small town boardroom. But weirdly, the people who are debating it are the residents, the people who know nothing about the details. The village government, the board, just sits there, not saying anything. Even after the Trump announcement, they refuse to confirm that the future development they’re considering, is in fact Foxconn.
And you can hear the residents start to get frustrated.
PAT: (In meeting) Now I’m filled with anxiety and cry all the time. I lay sleepless at night thinking of our home crumbling down around us.
SHANNON: (In meeting) The last month my neighbors and I have witnessed core soil testing, wetlands testing, tons of helicopters and Sigma Group flying drones, video taping my children in the backyard while they play.
PAT: (In meeting) Why don't you have a meeting for the landowners and homeowners in said proposed site and tell them the truth about what is going to happen and when, instead of all of us hearing nothing but rumors.
SRUTHI: The residents just don’t understand, like, why is this a secret?
JEFF: Why can't this village board tell the village people that this is coming? Is somebody twisting your arm, telling you you can't talk about it?
SRUTHI: The board’s evasiveness just starts to get absurd. A few months after the Trump announcement village president Dave Degroot is part of a delegation that takes a trip to Asia, where he visits a factory.
This is not a thing that Mount Pleasant village presidents do. So, when Dave comes back to Mount Pleasant, he’s at the meeting, and he acts as if there’s nothing to report.
DEGROOT: (In meeting) Reports, uh, president has nothing. Trustees, uh–
TRUSTEE: You have none?
TRUSTEE: You going to make a–?
TRUSTEE: Are you going to make a report on your trip?
DEGROOT: I can’t say a lot, but uh, yeah, well, the trust- the–the president did make a, make a trip to Japan. It was a uh, a trip for, uh, fact-finding and, um, doing a lot of fact-checking and, and whatnot relative to possible development that we’ve got coming this way. There was a lot of vetting that we wanted to do...
SRUTHI: I asked Dave if I could interview him for this story, and he said yes. We met in Village Hall.
DEGROOT: I’m David DeGroot. Nice to meet you.
SRUTHI: Sruthi, yeah, I know...
SRUTHI: This was months after this period where the board was being so secretive and bizarre. By that point, I’d understood why they’d been acting that way — it’s because Foxconn had made the negotiators sign NDAs, and the board had been told not to say a word.
Anyway, Dave was very much in line with the man that I’d seen in all of those village board meeting videos. Like, he’s a little reserved. He’s very hard to read.
But when he started talking about that Japan trip, which was a visit to a Foxconn factory that makes LCD TV screens, when he talked about it, I saw this whole other Dave DeGroot. His eyes got wide, and he smiled like this person with a wonderful secret.
DEGROOT: I’ve seen the future, and it’s coming to Mount Pleasant.
SRUTHI: What, tell me about Osaka. What was it like?
DEGROOT: It was big, it was massive. There’s, there’s robots that are absolutely ginormous. Uh, and everything is so out of scale, out of scope with how we would recognize traditional manufacturing. It’s just an amazing sight to see.
SRUTHI: This just felt like the new generation.
DEGROOT: Seen it with my own eyes.
SRUTHI: Dave has this whole vision of what is coming to Wisconsin. It’s like Silicon Valley, but in Wisconsin. They’re going to call it, Wiscon Valley. Dave told me about the first whiff he got of this opportunity. He’d just been elected Village President. Literally, it was his first week on the job when this letter arrives.
[MUSIC — TORTOISE on “letter”]
DEGROOT: I’m sitting in the office of Jenny Trick, the Racine County Economic Development person. And we're, and we’re looking at a, an RFP, a Request for Proposal, from a, a then unnamed company. We didn't know who this was about, but I'm but I'm looking at these numbers and they make no sense. They, you know, I'm like, are we off by a few decimal points here? (SRUTHI laughs) These numbers are absolutely crazy.
SRUTHI: What were the numbers?
DEGROOT: Oh, at the time it was six million–six billion with a B in Economic Development and tens of millions of square feet. And, at the time, I think it was like 8 to 10,000 employees that would be hired. And we've never, you know, obviously we’ve never seen anything like that.
SRUTHI: Dave says he immediately asked his researcher at the office, like, who is this? And the guy said, I think it's Foxconn and Dave asked--
DEGROOT: What is Foxconn? Who is Foxconn? And he said, “Well, you know, they just happen to be a worldwide Fortune 50 company. They’re, they’re into every market segment out there. They're known for TVs–
SRUTHI: He’s like, oh–
DEGROOT: And GPSs and all that stuff.”
SRUTHI: He’s like, oh, Dave it's only the biggest company in almost the entire world.
DEGROOT: Exactly, and I'm like, “Whoa, are we on to something.”
[MUSIC — “Toothbrushing group”]
SRUTHI: But this RFP from Foxconn, this was just like the first stage in a competition, like Mount Pleasant had to beat out all these towns all across the country. Dave’s team’s approach was we need to do whatever it takes to win this. Like, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
And pretty much everybody in Mount Pleasant agrees that the town could use an opportunity like this. Like, this one local resident named Al Gardner offered to drive me around town and he gave me a tour basically of all the places where people used to work before they shut down.
SRUTHI: And you grew up in Racine, right?
AL GARDNER: Yes I did. Grew up on the north side of Racine, which we are on now.
SRUTHI: We drove a couple miles East, from Mount Pleasant to Racine.
AL: I know these, I know every backyard in this whole area over here.
SRUTHI: And this town used to be the industrial heart of this entire area.
AL: We have a lot–there’s a lot of industrial inventors from Racine.
SRUTHI: Al told me, very proudly that, “Here’s just a couple things that were invented here. There was the portable vacuum cleaner, lollipop machines, the InSinkErator garbage disposal.” And he said that in the ’40s, thousands of black people moved up here from the south, looking for jobs.
Al’s father was one of them. And he used to work at this foundry that made tractors, and Al used to work there too.
AL: State Street, when I was young this street was booming. They had grocery stores, they had banks, bowling alleys, bakeries.
AL: Now look at it, nothing.
SRUTHI: I mean, it's a lot of buildings. I guess they just looked kind of empty.
AL: Empty buildings.
AL: Once, I told you, once Imagine Factoring left here everything closed out.
[MUSIC — “CLOSE OUT”]
SRUTHI: Al said it happened pretty quickly. In the ’80s, places started to shut down, jobs went way, drugs came in. And he saw his community get decimated. And they just never recovered.
So, Al started going to those village hall meetings the same time all those people were going to ask questions about Foxconn. He was excited about the jobs and the only thing he wanted to know: how could he be sure people in his community would actually get them?
AL: (In meeting) You know, my whole thing about this whole Foxconn issue is, who is going to benefit? I know in the past that when these jobs come here that people that look like me don’t have the opportunity to build on the project and get, get jobs.
SRUTHI: But, of course, Al never gets an answer.
DEGROOT: (In meeting) Thank you, Mr. Gardner.
SRUTHI: Nobody does. By August, after two months of secrecy and closed meetings, things start to get ugly. According to Kelly, everything just went off the rails on August 28th at this one village meeting. It started like pretty much any other, with Al asking this question about Foxconn.
AL: (In meeting) I looked at this article today and it says that if we get Foxconn, our taxes are going to go up — property owners. Now, I already paid thousands of dollars in, in property taxes. If they come here, are my taxes going to go up?
SRUTHI: And when he’s finished, Dave DeGroot actually responds, which, at this moment, is a violation of Robert’s Rules, but whatever. Dave says something that sounds condescending.
DEGROOT: (In meeting) Mr. Gardner, I'd be careful about what you read, and I wouldn't believe everything that you read.
SRUTHI: And so, Al tries to respond.
AL: (In meeting) Ok, can I –
DEGROOT: That’s enough, sir.
AL: Can I respond to that?
DEGROOT: No, sir.
AL: You responded to me.
DEGROOT: No, sir.
AL: Let me respond back to you.
DEGROOT: Go sit down.
AL: Who you talking to, man?
DEGROOT: You, sir.
AL: What, now you’re going to respond to your tax paying citizens--
DEGROOT: Do you want to be called out of order?
AL: --but we can’t respond back to you.
DEGROOT: No, sir.
AL: That is totally wrong. That is totally wrong--
DEGROOT: Go sit down.
AL: Who you talking to, man?
DEGROOT: (pounds gavel) You're out of order.
AL: Who you talking to? You not my daddy, man. Who you talking to?
DEGROOT: Chief Zarzecki, um, if this man--
AL: You should be ashamed of yourself, man. You should be ashamed of yourself. You gonna sit up here and talk like this to me--
DEGROOT: Remove this person. Remove him now.
AL: I’m gonna remove myself. You a coward, buddy. (voice fades) You a coward, that’s what you are. You a damn coward man, shit.
DEGROOT: Move along.
GALLAHER: (In interview) I was called to come up and, and before I began talking,
DEGROOT: (In meeting) Kelly Gallaher. Miss Gallaher, before you speak ever again, in these chambers, you have to have a way, way better idea of the conduct that is expected of you when you're speaking in a public meeting. By which I mean the last time you spoke here upon leaving the table and walking away, you dropped the F-bomb not once but twice.
GALLAHER: (In interview) Dave DeGroot said that he had been told that in a previous meeting I had used a profanity. It was a ridiculous statement and that I would–
SRUTHI: Meaning you hadn’t.
GALLAHER: No I hadn’t–no I’ve, I’ve never used a profanity in public comment.
SRUTHI: At this point, another trustee starts to try and intervene.
DEGROOT: (In meeting) And saying, “F you, F you” twice–
JON HANSEN: (raises voice) Point. Of. Order. This is enough.
DEGROOT: (pounds gavel) You’re out of order.
HANSEN: You’re out of order!
DEGROOT: You’re out of order. Once more and you’re gone. Now let me, now let me continue.
SRUTHI: This had never happened before.
HANSEN: (In meeting) These are residents of our community.
DEGROOT: If I hit this gavel one more time, you're gone for the rest of this meeting.
DEGROOT: In any event, had I, had I actually heard that you would have been thrown out of here. And you would have been either cited or arrested for disorderly conduct. So having said that.
DEGROOT: You will not be speaking in the–in these chambers again until I've heard a oral apology that is suitable to me and the rest of this board. Number two, I'm not going to hear the oral apology from you until I hear–until I read a written one. That has been delivered to me at least five business days before this board meets so that I can check the credibility of it because you have had a long history of having issues with the truth. So please go back and sit down. And we'll hear from you maybe sometime in the future.
RESIDENT: Let her speak.
KELLY: Um, Mr. President, may I quickly respond?
DEGROOT: I would prefer that you just excuse yourself because I consider you to be out of order.
SRUTHI: After this meeting, it felt as if something had really broken in Mount Pleasant.
The village hall had always been this place where residents could just come and talk about things. And it was like the prospect of this deal was so big, it had broken that. People were very upset.
Dave personally apologized to Al, and then he came to the next village meeting and read out an apology to the entire town. When I talked to him, I asked about it.
SRUTHI: Do you remember that one meeting where things got really heated at a village board meeting? Do you know which one I'm talking about?
DEGROOT: Well I don’t- there–there may have been more than one board meeting where things get heated. It's- it’s the–it’s the government in action, but I- I- I think–are you referring to the, the Kelly Gallaher situation?
SRUTHI: Yes that one.
DEGROOT: Well, obviously tensions ran high, and it was not my best day. And as I publicly shared in my apology at the following meeting, it wasn't my best moment. I lost my composure in the heat of the moment. I apologized for it. And I moved on.
[MUSIC — “That Voice Was Still There”]
SRUTHI: Still, to Kelly, it seemed as if Dave DeGroot controlled the Village Hall, and so she started to look for other places she could express herself. She ended up rebooting this old Facebook group of hers called A Better Mt. Pleasant. The logo of which was a cracked egg, a subtle dig at DeGroot, and she’s mainly posting articles like, What Foxconn Would Do To The Great Lakes or Will Our Ambulance Fees Be Raised?
But then, this other mysterious website pops up
SRUTHI: Wait, what is it called?
SRUTHI: Which, which is a reference to what?
KELLY: My Facebook community page, which is, A Better Mount Pleasant. So um–
SRUTHI: So, basically, you had a Facebook page called A Better Mount Pleasant (KELLY: Yes, yes.) and so then somebody unknown, an anonymous person, makes a website called, Let’s Make a Better Mount Pleasant.
KELLY: Right, right, so uh...
SRUTHI: If Kelly’s Facebook page is all about what’s wrong with the Foxconn deal, this new website is all about what’s wrong with Kelly. Kelly and her liberal friends.
SRUTHI: Foxconn minus a village idiot.
KELLY: Okay, yeah that’s–
SRUTHI: Or maybe, how about this, maybe a “Please donate for one-way fantasy trip for Kelly–”
KELLY: “Please donate and send Kelly G. on a one-way Trip To Her Fantasy Island. Please donate to get rid of her at www.getridkelly.com,” which doesn't actually exist. “If enough money is collected, who knows maybe she'll take John with her.” That is a trustee who, who the author has suggested I may be having an affair with. “Kelly G.’s Fantasy Land has No Trump, No Walker, No Delagrave, No Vos, No Wanggaard, and No DeGroot. Not sure about you, but my Fantasy Island has no Kelly G.”
SRUTHI: There’s so many of these posts.
[MUSIC — mike organ]
KELLY: “Now it looks like she's on a mission attacking Foxconn.”
SRUTHI: Kelly has been poring over every single one and realizes that this person has a very insider view on all of the village board meetings. This person is also very concerned about the Foxconn deal. And this person says a lot of very nice things about President Dave DeGroot.
SRUTHI: So, this person is pro-Dave Degroot.
KELLY: Definitely pro-Dave Degroot. Over time that kind of gave him away (laughs).
SRUTHI: It could be a person who's just pro-Dave DeGroot.
KELLY: It, it absolutely could be, although the person who–the person actually happens to know quite a bit about Dave DeGroot.
SRUTHI: Kelly said that years before all of this, she used to read Dave’s comments on the website of their local newspaper. So she feels as if she can recognize his writing. I asked Dave about it.
SRUTHI: There's this website called, Let's Make a Better Mount Pleasant. It was like an anonymous person who's posting things about Kelly Gallaher.
SRUTHI: And Kelly has a theory that it's, that it's you, the village president. So I just wanted to ask, is it you?
DEGROOT: It's not me. And if she, you know, has a problem with hate websites and all that she might want to look internally a little bit because I think her, her blog, A Better Mount Pleasant is horribly misnamed. Take a close look at it. There's nothing positive or better about it. If she believed in any kind of truth in advertising, it should be called A Negative Mount Pleasant.
SRUTHI: The local police investigated, and they couldn’t figure out who was behind this blog. Now, this fight between A Better Mount Pleasant and Let's Make a Better Mount Pleasant, it was happening during the most precarious for the Foxconn deal. All of these officials from the state and like nearby communities, they’re at the village meetings. And so Kelly comes up with this plan.
DEGROOT: (In meeting) And next is Kelly Gallaher, who wishes to speak about the Mount Pleasant hate website.
KELLY: (In interview) And so what I began to do was every village meeting I brought in whatever posts had been posted on it and I read them out loud.
KELLY: (In meeting) The author, as you know, who I believe is Village President DeGroot, would like you to know that my husband of 30 years, who he calls Dimwit, because his last name is Dimler, is jealous of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a real decent American woman. Not a vicious, vacuous loser like me. He also believes the Village Hall is being rented out by a group of communists this weekend. That is our leader. Mr. President, once again, I ask you to seek help and treatment. Your website frightens my family and friends, and it’s weird.
SRUTHI: Remember, there are all these bigwigs here for these Foxconn meetings. And basically Kelly is accusing Dave of writing all this crazy stuff and she’s using it to sow doubt in this whole process.
KELLY: (In meeting) Even if you do not like or agree with me, the person who wrote and published these insults for his own twisted entertainment has destroyed all trust and cooperation in a village on the brink of enormous business development and financial responsibilities.
SRUTHI: (In interview) How did Dave respond?
KELLY: He said nothing. He just–he just said nothing. Nothing at all.
[MUSIC — “Nothing at all”]
DEGROOT: The public gets a chance uh, at the beginning of the meetings, you know, for three minutes, to say whatever’s on their mind. You know, and frankly I don’t care whether they want to uh, you know, share their, uh, thimble collection with me or, or, you know, talk about, you know, how the football game worked out, or if they want to sing Revolution #9 backwards, I don’t care, as long as they get it done in three minutes.
SRUTHI: It turned out, the reward for Dave suffering those three-minute speeches was, he won. Kelly lost. She wanted the town to get to see the deal before it was signed. But that did not happen.
By October 2017, so this is six months after they’d first received that Foxconn RFP, Dave and his team finished putting together their best offer to lure Foxconn to Mount Pleasant. And Foxconn says yes.
The two sides do a group handshake.
SRUTHI: And, and how did you feel?
DEGROOT: Relieved. Absolutely relieved. And I had to, I had to keep my mouth shut until the, until the announcement was made. And it was kind of a pins and needle moment for the, the next couple of weeks, is the handshake really a good handshake? Is this really, really going to happen? And within days afterwards, you know, we were very very much assured that, yeah, it's, it’s coming to Mount Pleasant. Mount Pleasant is going to become the epicenter of Wiscon Valley. That’s a cool feeling.
SRUTHI: Dave DeGroot gets to do his own press conference. It’s like a mini version of the White House conference, against this big white backdrop that says, “Racine County Welcomes Foxconn.”
DEGROOT: (In press conference) Would you say it with me loud and proud, three, two, one. What a day to be from Wisconsin (clapping). Thank you. Today is a day for all of us to celebrate. And I’d like to start by thanking President Trump for his leadership. It wasn't that long ago when then candidate Trump made a very bold promise to bring manufacturing back to the United States, the art of the deal. And here's what we have before us today: Ten billion dollars of investment, 20 million square feet of industrial build out, thousands and thousands of very well paying jobs, increasing our middle class. It’s everything that you could ask for.
SRUTHI: Foxconn is coming to Mount Pleasant. It’s official. Sort of.
At this point, the village has a handshake, not a finished contract. And nobody in the village knows the exact details of how this is going to work — like what Foxconn will deliver to the town, and what the town will give away in exchange.
And everybody wanted to know those details, including me because there was something about this whole deal that just never made sense to me, which is, why would Foxconn want to come to America? And what would they want with Mt. Pleasant?
The answer to that after the break.
SRUTHI: Welcome back to the show.
So, can we just talk for a minute about how weird it is that Foxconn would want a factory in America? I mean, think about it. Foxconn is very well set up in Asia, where politicians are on their side, land is cheap, they can pay workers little to work seven days a week. That’s their entire business model. So, why come to Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin?
[MUSIC — WHY COME TO MOUNT PLEASANT?]
SRUTHI: I reached out to Foxconn, but they wouldn’t talk to me. And Alberto Moel, this analyst who has studied Foxconn for years and has written extensively about them, said that is not at all surprising...because Foxconn doesn’t talk to anyone.
ALBERTO MOEL: It's one of the more secretive obscure opaque companies ever.
ALBERTO: You'll never find an orgs chart, you’ll never find a management structure, you'll never find breakdowns and details on the different business units. You'll never find shipment data [SRUTHI: huh] I mean, a lot of companies are very secretive, but these guys are notably secretive.
TERRY GOU: Vice President Pence, Speaker Ryan, Governor Walker, and the distinguished members of Congress, ladies and gentlemen…
SRUTHI: If you listen to the speech that Terry Gou, the chairman of Foxconn, gave alongside President Trump at that big press conference, it’s very impressive how little he actually says. Like, here’s his reason for why Foxconn is coming to America.
TERRY GOU: Why do it here? TV was invented in America. Yet, America does not have a single LCD fab to produce a complete AK system. We are going to change that. (applause)
SRUTHI: He’s saying TV was invented here, but there’s no TV factories here, and so he’s going to come to build a TV factory. Which, when you think about it, does not make any sense because there’s a good reason that TVs are not made from scratch in this country. All of the components, like the entire supply chain, is in Asian.
So, I took this question to village President Dave DeGroot, just to ask, what do you think? Why is Foxconn coming to Wisconsin? And to him it just seemed obvious.
DEGROOT: This is where they see the, the education. This is where they see, where all of the um innovation occurs. They want to get close to the, the next generations of kids coming up because that's what drives the technology market is new whiz-bang stuff for, you know, for kids as they’re- a- a–as they're getting through school and getting into their income earning years.
SRUTHI: So it's not just that their market is in America, Americans are like famous for buying the biggest TV screens. It's also you think that they'll get better engineering talent here than back in Asia?
DEGROOT: Well, it's called the Science and Engineering Park, you know, the Wisconn Valley Foxconn Science and Engineering Park, and that's- that's–that's really what they think is their ace in the hole.
SRUTHI: The Science and Engineering Park that Dave is talking about, just to be clear, it doesn’t actually exist right now. But he’s saying it will. Dave’s point is, Wisconsin and America are great. Of course Foxconn wants a piece of that.
[MUSIC — Tree Frogs]
SRUTHI: Here's what I think is going on. I think it's just math. Foxconn did the math. It’s very cheap for them to operate in China. So what would America need to do for Foxconn in order to make it worth their while. Just being here, it’s a hedge against tariffs. But how much other stuff could they get out of a town like Mount Pleasant.
And Foxconn, being this very smart international operator, they’re used to dealing with countries and they have this trick, the analyst Alberto told me. They go to the country and say, we’re going to build this huge plant that’s going to bring in all this money.
ALBERTO: They showed up in Brazil and said we're going to do 12 billion dollars. They showed up in Indonesia and say we going to do five billion dollars. They went to Vietnam and said we’ll do a billion dollars.
SRUTHI: Do you know why? Like, what's the motive?
ALBERTO: I guess they learned that when you show up with an RFP that says ten billion dollars people will bend over backwards to serve you and then you can backtrack your way into something that economically make sense to you.
ALBERTO: Which is what they've done in every country they've done this, this ploy. And they're doing it in the US.
SRUTHI: In all of those countries–Brazil, India, Indonesia–Foxconn snagged a bunch of government subsidies and then just ended up building way smaller plants than promised.
And so, in the US, this whole thing started the way it always starts: with Foxconn throwing out a fishing line, a Request for Proposal, dangling some huge numbers, billions of dollars of investment, thousands of jobs. They know that on the other side are politicians desperate to say they brought jobs and towns that actually need those jobs.
DEGROOT: So would you say it with me loud and proud, three, two, one. What a day to be from Wisconsin!
SRUTHI: The group that bit the hardest on that fishing line? Mount Pleasant.
DEGROOT: And here's what we have before us today. Ten billion dollars of investment. Twenty million square feet of industrial build out.
SRUTHI: After all those months of closed-room secret meetings with state officials and village officials, when the ink dried on the deal, here’s what Foxconn got out of the negotiation.
This is the math.
Wisconsin will give Foxconn almost three billion dollars in incentives, and then, Mount Pleasant itself will chip in another 760 million dollars.
DAVID SWENSON: Right off the bat, it was an 11 on a scale of 10. It was way more than 11. It was just way out there.
SRUTHI: That’s economist, David Swenson
SRUTHI: And when you say “way out there,” what do you mean? Like, in terms of size just like, bigger–
SRUTHI: Than stuff that you'd heard about?
SWENSON: Yeah. The, the magnitude of subsidy, um, number one, and then the magnitude of subsidy per promised job created.
SRUTHI: What David Swenson means is: Foxconn says that they’re gonna create jobs that pay an average of 50K a year, but the state is paying them $200,000 for each one of those jobs.
And deals like this are happening all over America, right? Like, the most recent you might have heard of, the new Amazon New York City-based headquarters.
NEWS 2: A lot of New Yorkers are furious about the tax deals and other benefits that the city gave to Amazon.
NEWS 3: In return for bestowing his grace on the America’s two richest cities, Jeff Bezos, who’s the world’s richest man, will receive more than 2 billion dollars in subsidies from you. The taxpayer.
[MUSIC — MIKE ALONE]
SRUTHI: People were so mad about the New York Amazon deal because they were saying it was twice as big as the normal incentive package. The Foxconn deal is 10 times as big.
But I still wondered -- okay so the town maybe the town really overpaid for a bunch of jobs. But it could still be worth it in the long run. I mean, eventually they are going to make that money back, right?
Well, that assumes that this factory itself actually succeeds. And when I started asking pretty basic questions about the factory, things got pretty fuzzy quickly. Foxconn had started off saying it would make these high-end LCD TVs. But after the deal was signed, they said maybe not.
I talked to Todd Taves, who worked with the village.
TODD TAVES: I'm the firm's lead advisor to the Village of Mount Pleasant on the Foxconn Project.
SRUTHI: He helped decided what incentives exactly the village would give to Foxconn. So I figured he -- if anyone -- would know what kind of factory they had gotten in return.
SRUTHI: And do you know exactly what Foxconn will be making in that centerpiece factory?
TODD TAVES: In terms of what the, uh, the product will be?
TODD: I don’t.
SRUTHI: Does that concern you at all?
TODD: Well, you know, the, the perspective I take as the financial guy, I don’t have that concern from a strictly numbers standpoint because as long as we have manufacturing facilities that generate that level of value the financial performer works regardless of if they're, you know, manufacturing iPhones or flat panel TVs or whatever it may be.
SRUTHI: So you're saying as long as there's a building that's making something the numbers will work out.
SRUTHI: Actually the more I looked into this, the more I learned that what is getting built in the factory IS important for reasons I hadn’t understood because … I didn’t understand that much about factories.
Did you know factories are actually really fascinating?
For instance, the actual lifespan of a factory has been getting and shorter over time. I talked to this investigative journalist named Larry Tabak, who said that the factories that make cutting edge technology, those factories go obsolete faster, just like the technology they make.
When Larry first saw Foxconn’s original proposal, which said it would make high-end LCD TVs, he immediately started calling up flatscreen experts — and Larry asked one of them about this thing he had noticed one day at Costco.
LARRY TABAK: This is the conversation I had with the local expert. I said, I said, “By the way, I just walked into Costco the other day and I saw these beautiful 65-inch TVs and it was just gorgeous, you know, with a super high resolution. I said, but they were all OLED, organic LED. I said, is this a competing technology or is it just a, you know, a variation on the?” He said, “No, no. it's a wholly different technology.” And then I went like on Consumers Reports and I said, “What are the best TVs that you can buy?” And they were all OLEDs top of the line. Well, I said, “If OLED becomes cheaper, couldn't they take over the market?” He says, “Sure, you know, and, you know, that's a one possibility.” And I said, “Well, can this factory that they're building in Mount Pleasant in Wisconsin? Can that make–”
SRUTHI: This giant factory–
LARRY: “Yeah, multibillion-dollar factory, can that convert to OLED?” And he laughed, and he said, “Not unless you gut it and start over again.”
[MUSIC — LOOPBOX]
SRUTHI: Remember, Mount Pleasant has offered a 760 million dollar incentive package to Foxconn — that’s money they obviously do not have. And so they have had to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars.
The way this could work out for the village is, if everything goes according to plan, 30 years from now, when they village has paid off their loans, then they can begin to start keeping the money that Foxconn pays in property taxes.
When I asked economist David Swenson what he thought — like, could this possibly work? He did not seem to think so.
SWENSON: Well they’re- yeah- but- you–uh —I don’t know what to say it’s–they’re betting the future of the town with money they don’t have, assuming technology that they don’t understand and benefits that are going to be distributed widely but not necessarily in their community. That’s a fool’s bet.
SRUTHI: I asked Dave DeGroot about this.
SRUTHI: Can you tell me, what are the two things like for you? What is the worst-case scenario? And what is the best case scenario?
DEGROOT: Well, I think if you look at, at, at the broad aspect of it, Foxconn is in every market segment out there. They have huge interests in medical, in medical imaging, healthcare of all different flavors. They're, the self-driving cars obviously, autonomous vehicles, in literally every market segment that’s out there. And when we say Science and Technology Park, that's the impetus for all of those market segments and, you know, so as the–what’s the best way to say this?
DEGROOT: As, as they come and, and build out their park. It’s, you know, it’s really about opportunity and that’s, and that’s why I'm so doggone optimistic about how bright our future is going to be. I really don't think that there's that much downside.
SRUTHI: So, so basically, like, the best case scenario is the park and the worst case scenario, you're saying, it's, it’s better not to dwell on it?
DEGROOT: Well I don't–I don't know that there is a worst case scenario. Really it’s just a matter of how well we can exploit the opportunities that we have going forward, knowing that the downside risk is protected, the taxpayer is protected under any circumstance.
SRUTHI: That consultant who had helped the village construct this deal, Todd Taves, he agreed with Dave. He said their main focus was protecting the taxpayer. The Mount Pleasant taxpayer actually because he said, if the deal does totally blow up, the state of Wisconsin will step in -- meaning, it’ll be everybody’s job to pay for it.
DEGROOT: OK, folks. We'll be bring the meeting to order here in just a minute. I'd like to remind everybody to please turn off or mute your cell phones and other electronic devices.
SRUTHI: On December 1st of 2017, the Mount Pleasant village board officially votes on the contract with Foxconn. This is the moment it went from a handshake to a full-fledged agreement.
DEGROOT: Any other questions or comments?
SRUTHI: And for the residents we spoke to, this was also the first time they saw the actual agreement.
DEGROOT: OK, there’s a motion and a second for the approval of the development agreement. Roll call please.
KOHLHAGEN: Hansen [HANSEN: Aye], Havn [HAVN: Aye], Hewitt [HEWITT: Aye], Feest [FEEST: Aye], Otwaska [OTWASKA: Aye], DeGroot.
DEGROOT: Aye. [MUSIC “MOTION PASSES”] Motion passes unanimously.And this is a, this is a very historic moment indeed. I’d like to thank our board all here for their wisdom, their vision and their leadership...
SRUTHI: Once Kelly learned the terms of the deal, the massive incentive package, she felt like the village government had sold them out. I mean, Foxconn must be thrilled.
KELLY: If you're a big company and you want this to go off without a hitch, you want to find a community in which you may have the most bendable people, people who aren't going to challenge you, people who don't know too much and who are going to be willing to go along with whatever you say. They hit pay dirt in Mount Pleasant. They found the most unprepared community in the state, perhaps the most unprepared community in the country to be able to plop this down.
SRUTHI: There was this one last thing that Dave DeGroot and the village board had to do in order to seal this deal, and it’s a thing that made people angry. The village had promised Foxconn that it would acquire all of the land that they needed for their factory. Clear out all the homeowners who lived there. And in a lot of cases this worked out fine -- people took their buyouts. But in other cases, it got very rocky.
Kelly introduced me to this one man who had a hard time, Sean McFarlane.
SRUTHI: Hi, Sean.
SEAN MCFARLANE: Hello.
SRUTHI: Sruthi, nice to meet you. You’re kids? Hi, hey.
SRUTHI: Sean used to live in a home for people with disabilities that his mother had owned. He’s in a wheelchair. And Sean said the village had told him that he was eligible for a relocation fee if he moved, up to $22,000. But he had to move right away. He said okay, and the village moved him to this temporary house, which turned out to be a wreck.
SEAN: The water didn’t work, the well didn’t work, there’s no heat. I mean, I guess we can run the 1950s stove or oven whatever. But I mean, we could all huddle around in the kitchen.
SRUTHI: Sean’s wheelchair didn’t fit in any of the doorways, and so he had to take off the doors just to be able to use the bathroom. And Sean said he was just staying here until that payment arrived. But the day before I saw him, the village had called to say, actually, he wasn’t going to get anything.
SEAN: When this guy told me too, he had like the emotion of a serial killer, like no empathy. I’m just like, “Is this Dexter I’m talking to?” Like seriously and I was thinking, you know, it’s bad to do this to a family of one kid or family of two kids or a guy in a wheelchair, but add this all together with one leg and a family of four and I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it. To me it just seems like we can do it and that’s what we’re going to do.
SRUTHI: I asked the village government for their side of it, and they explained that they had already paid Sean’s mom the relocation benefits, and they felt it was enough to cover all her occupants, including Sean. But Sean needed the money to make his new place accessible so he could move in. And now he was stuck. And so he went to the place you go when you have a problem in Mount Pleasant: Village Hall.
SEAN: This has been really hard for my family because you know all this money going around in this project and we're talking 22,000 dollars, 22,080 dollars. And that money is the world to us. And it just seems like I don't understand what I did or who I offended, why you guys would take this money from us. I mean, this is, sorry, man, I don’t mean to cry, but I'm sorry whoever I pissed–Claude if, if I upset you, I'm sorry. Marcuvitz, anybody. I'm sorry, whatever I did. I feel this is on me for my family. I told my kids that this would work out. Everyone said that they were going to take this money from us. Everyone said that they’re just going to get you out of the house, and then as soon as you’re out of the house they’re going to reneg and take that money away from you. I said no, Meisbauer shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and said man to man we will not screw you. The village will not screw you. Well we got screwed.
[MUSIC — PULSES 4 driving]
PROTESTOR: (over megaphone) What do we say, what do we know?
PROTESTORS: Foxconn has got to go.
PROTESTOR: (over megaphone) What do we say, what do we know?
PROTESTORS: Foxconn has got to go.
SRUTHI: Just this past summer, with two months left to go on the village’s deadline, like when they have to deliver the land to Foxconn--
PROTESTORS: Power! Power!
SRUTHI: --the fight was in full swing.
PROTESTOR: (over megaphone) What do we say, what do we know?
PROTESTORS: Foxconn has got to go. (marching band playing Battle Hymn of the Republic)
SRUTHI: Kelly and her side are battling to keep people from losing their homes.
KELLY: In addition to the rush and the secrecy, Mount Pleasant agreed to be the real estate agents to purchase nearly 3,000 acres and convey it to a private foreign corporation [boos]
[MUSIC — Softly Cyclical]
SRUTHI: And, Dave DeGroot’s side, in June, they call a vote at the village board meeting. They’re done negotiating with homeowners, and they have one last card to play: they’re going to declare the factory land blighted — meaning, it’s unsafe and uninhabitable — and so all the remaining residents have to leave. The village board says, it’s for the their own safety.
KELLY: Please, do us all a favor and spare us that “I'm doing this for the good of the village” baloney. You are doing this for the benefit of Foxconn and the 860 million dollar hole you have dug for us.
AL: You’re taking homes away from people. You’re snatching their heart out.
MICHAEL: I can't, I just can't get my arms around this. These are people, these are the people that live in the village. They paid their dues. You're gonna throw him under the bus. My God, please don't do that. Thank you.
SRUTHI: And then, after all the residents have spoken, one trustee stands up to say he is pro Foxconn, but he’s against this blighted ruling. He says he has pictures of the houses, they’re beautiful properties, obviously not blighted. And then comes the vote.
DEGROOT: OK, 4A, consideration and action on resolution 37-2018, a resolution designating a redevelopment area. Declaring the redevelopment area to be a blighted area and approving the redevelopment plan therefore. OK, there be no other discussion. Roll call vote, please.
KOHLHAGEN: Clausen. [CLAUSEN: Aye], Bhatia [BHATIA: Aye], Feest [FEEST: Absolutely not (applause)], Havn [HAVN: Aye],
DEGROOT: We’re taking a vote, please.
KOHLHAGEN: Eastman [EASTMAN: Aye], Hewitt [HEWITT: Aye], DeGroot.
DEGROOT: Aye, the motion carries.
VILLAGERS: Shame on you.
DEGROOT: (pounds gavel) Order please (Villagers booing).
SRUTHI: And it’s over. The families will all have to leave the land to make way for construction.
[MUSIC — MAKE WAY FOR CONSTRUCTION]
DEGROOT: So then we'll move on to new business, 4B discussion and possible action of Amendment 2 to the Intergovernmental Retail...
SRUTHI: My producer Jessica Yung and I went out there. The project manager of the village gave us a tour. And he took us to this low hill on one edge of the construction site so you could see the entire expanse of it.
JESSICA: (wind blowing) We’re on this field, this like elevated hill, and all we can see for as long as we can see is just construction. OK, I’m going to take a picture.
SRUTHI: It felt like being on the surface of the moon, like dirt all the way to the horizon, dust hanging in the air and just hundreds of these tiny yellow machines, back hoes, scrapers.
JESSICA: It's like bunch of ants moving around, moving dirt from one end to the other. It's pretty incredible.
SRUTHI: There’s still no sign of the factory. The project manager told us construction won’t end for another five to seven years at least.
SRUTHI: Somebody once told me about this concept called faith-based development–deals that get made because a person believes, hey, this thing is going to work out because I believe it’s gonna work out.
I asked Dave, is that what this deal is? And he said, “No.” And then he thought about it, and he said, “You know what? Sure.”
DEGROOT: I've never seen how pessimism has created one job for anybody anywhere. And, and to a certain extent, yes, it does come down to belief. And that's, and that's how you move a village, not only a village, but your greater community, forward. Nothing happens without first believing it can happen. So that's where we're going.
PJ: Reporter Sruthi Pinnamaneni.
Reply All is hosted by me, PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman. We’re produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Damiano Marchetti, Anna Foley and Jessica Yung. Our show’s edited by Tim Howard. We are mixed by Rick Kwan. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris. Our intern is Heather Schröering. Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder.
Big, big thanks to Brian Merchant and to David Merriman, who spent hours walking us through the economics of the deal. And thanks also to Josh Freeman, Greg LeRoy, Paul Semenza, Ron Starner, Tim Bartik, Tim Kingsfield, Ricardo Torres, Dave Novak, Kim Mahoney, Jimmy Parra and Peter Annin.
Matt Lieber is a good excuse to get dressed up.
You can listen to the show on Spotify, iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. We’ll see ya in a couple weeks.
Correction: Transcript was updated on Dec. 11, 2018 to reflect that there was a draft of the agreement posted online in October 2017, although the residents we spoke to said they we were not aware of it.