updated 05:18 pm EST, Tue November 19, 2013
Apple threatened to move project elsewhere without foreign trade zone
Arizona's Gilbert Unified School District has voted unanimously to allow the extension of a foreign trade zone at a nearby airport to a proposed Apple sapphire plant, reports say. The decision clears the last of eight local regulatory hurdles for the purchase and conversion of a former First Solar complex. The overhauled facility will actually be operated by GT Advanced Technologies, but GT is expected to provide most of its sapphire to Apple, who will compensate for $578 million in capital expenditures over the course of five years.
A week ago, a schoolboard meeting on the topic is said to have been contentious, with two out of five board members expressing opposition. The foreign trade zone designation will lower property tax assessments for the factory by as much as 70 percent; because of the possible damage to local budgets, Apple had to secure approval from Maricopa County, Mesa Community College, Maricopa Community Colleges, the Central Arizona Project, the Maricopa Integrated Health System, the East Valley Institute of Technology, and the City of Mesa.
The GUSD may have been persuaded by an Apple spokesman, who reportedly told them after the meeting that several other states were competing for the factory, and that Apple would move production elsewhere if it didn't get foreign trade zone status. Apple is known to demand concessions for starting up projects; at its new offices in Austin, Texas for instance, the company is receiving handouts in exchange for bringing in thousands of jobs.
Apple's plans for the sapphire have yet to become public. The mineral is presently used in iPhone lenses, and the Touch ID sensor for the iPhone 5s. Apple is likely planning to bring Touch ID to other iPhones and the iPad, and might even use sapphire as a tougher substitute for Corning's Gorilla Glass screen protection.