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Microsoft builds $3.3B cloud campus on Foxconn's failed Wisconsin LCD plant plot

A Pleasant spot to Mount an AI push


After Foxconn failed to turn Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, into an LCD manufacturing mecca as promised, the site is getting a new lease on life: Microsoft will build a $3.3 billion datacenter campus there.

This is the site that was championed by Donald Trump, when he was US president, as an example of America making itself great again with high-tech assembly lines on its home soil. But after years of delays, Foxconn pulled out, and with Florida Man running for the White House again, his rival President Joe Biden just couldn't resist putting the boot in after Microsoft's announcement this week.

"Six years ago, the prior administration touted a $10 billion investment by Foxconn that would purportedly create 13,000 manufacturing jobs in Racine. But after 100 homes and farms were bulldozed to make way for the manufacturing plant and over $500 million in taxpayer dollars were invested to prepare the site, no such investment materialized," the Biden administration said Wednesday.

The much-touted Foxconn project, brokered by former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R), has been a source of controversy going back to 2018. Lured to the Badger State by the promise of a $3 billion tax incentive, Foxconn imagined the site as a massive LCD manufacturing plant. Back then Trump went so far as to declare it the "eighth wonder of the world" — a title it never lived up to.

Crucially, Foxconn repeatedly failed to meet hiring requirements mandated by the tax breaks. At one point the Taiwanese titan was even caught manipulating its employment figures by bringing on a large number of workers only to lay them off a short time later. By 2021, the state of Wisconsin had negotiated a new pact with Foxconn that pared back the corporation's lofty promise of $10 billion in investment in the region to just $672 million by 2021 and the tax incentives were cut to $80 million.

By the end of 2023, Microsoft had acquired more than 1,000 acres of land set aside for the failed LCD plant program. As with most large datacenter build outs, Microsoft's Mount Pleasant development is accompanied by the usual infrastructure and community improvements aimed at winning goodwill and addressing skills shortages in the area.

This includes creating an "AI Co-Innovation Lab" in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin, helping manufacturers integrate machine learning to automate workflows, and up-skilling 100,000 residents across the state to use generative AI technologies like, er, Microsoft Copilot.

The Windows giant says it'll also train and certify 3,000 local AI software developers and 1,000 cloud datacenter technicians.

In a statement, Microsoft President Brad Smith promoted AI's potential to advance next-gen manufacturing plants, upskill workers, and create jobs in Wisconsin and across the country.

The comments are somewhat antithetical to the very real fears regarding AI's potential to displace workers and automate away jobs — something execs at Intel and IBM have been keen to point out.

According to Redmond's development timeline, executives at the software goliath began meeting local officials and community members early last summer to garner support for the project. Construction on the site's foundations began in earnest in late 2023.

The extent of the datacenter project wasn't disclosed in the announcement, however local media have previously reported that the campus would include at least four datacenters. Redmond did attempt to assuage fears regarding power consumption, a topic that's garnered considerable attention in the wake of the generative AI boom. The cloud biz says it's working with National Grid to build a 250-megawatt solar array in Wisconsin, which is expected to come online in 2027.

Additionally, Microsoft says it will employ a recycled water cooling system across the majority of the facility, which operates in a closed loop and will not require additional water after startup. A "small portion" of the site will however still consume water for cooling, "but only when the temperature outside is very warm," the Azure giant claims.

This suggests that Microsoft is employing dry coolers for the majority of its infrastructure, and has evaporative coolers in reserve, potentially for high-performance compute clusters that may require additional air conditioning on warmer days.

As we've previously reported, Microsoft has run into trouble over its use of water just outside of Phoenix, Arizona, where it was forced to move away from evaporative cooling for future datacenters due to waste water concerns.

In terms of economic impact, Microsoft's hiring claims are nowhere near as bold as Foxconns were. Redmond expects to create 2,300 "union construction jobs" by 2025 and 2,000 permanent jobs over the course of the development. ®

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