Lately many of Normal, Illinois’ most invested community members have had their attention focused on Southern California — and not just because they’re jealous of the weather.
An electric car startup called Rivian, which has its manufacturing plant in Normal, is unveiling its vehicles for the first time at the Los Angeles Auto Show through Dec. 9. The response they get could play a part in determining the economic future of the central Illinois community, which was hit hard by the closure of a Mitsubishi plant in 2015.
“I was in Los Angeles for the debut,” Normal Mayor Chris Koos said. “The night of the unveiling, I talked to some people who were there internationally from the automotive community. The overall feeling was one of being very impressed with the technology … this is going to be very good for our community.”
Rivian, which was founded in 2009 and is based in Plymouth, Michigan, is launching with two vehicles: an electric SUV and an electric pickup truck. The truck, which Rivian said is the first mass-produced electric pickup, has been making a splash, even earning Rivian founder RJ Scaringe comparisons to Tesla founder Elon Musk.
“Pickups sell really well and they sell for high money,” said Rivian spokesman Michael McHale. “Nobody is doing the kind of electric utility and capability at the premium level that we can do.”
Rivian currently employees only about 60 people in Normal, but expects to see that number grow to around 500 when the company begins manufacturing in 2020, according to McHale. Normal was attractive in part because of its central location in the U.S., he said.
Rivian will receive $49.2 million of Illinois EDGE tax credits — given to companies that support job creation — based on Rivian adding 1,000 jobs over 10 years, Illinois Department of Economic Opportunity spokesman Anthony Esposito said. Rivian will also receive $1 million in tax credits from Normal, based on performance.
For some in Normal, Rivian represents the future in a more local sense as well: The startup purchased the town’s former Mitsubishi plant.
“They were originally looking [only] to buy some equipment out of the vacant Mitsubishi plant,” said Zach Dietmeier, vice president of marketing and communications for Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council, which helped Bring Rivian to the area. “Slowly, they ran it up the chain of command to say, ‘Hey, this a community that could share our values as a company.’”
Dietmeier says the car company was in “stealth mode” from when it arrived in 2016 until last week.
“It’s exciting to see how the community is responding,” he said. “It’s out there, [and] now we are going to start gaining some believers, I think.”
Jeff Woodard is cautiously optimistic. Woodward worked at the Mitsubishi plant from the late 1980s until 2005. He said a lot of his friends were hit hard when that plant closed.
“A lot of people were scrambling,” he said. “Some of them had to relocate out of state.”
Woodard said the current state of auto manufacturing in the United States makes it difficult for him to believe Rivian could ever match Mitsubishi’s footprint — he points to General Motors’ recent announcement that it's laying off almost 15,000 employees — but he’s excited by the growing interest in electric vehicles.
“There is probably some skepticism in the conversations I’ve been hearing about what this might do for the community,” Woodard said. “But I think people in general are hopeful.”