NORMAL, Ill. — Rivian is still a year away from rolling its first electric trucks off the line at a converted Mitsubishi plant in Normal, but for thousands of residents, customers and job seekers, the future is beginning to seem a little bit closer.
A large crowd of curious locals attended the startup automaker’s festive open house a week ago in the town circle, eager for their first viewing of Rivian’s inaugural offerings — a pricey, high-performance electric truck and SUV — and to meet the man who is turning the lights back on at a massive and long-shuttered auto plant on the outskirts of the city.
The sleek prototype vehicles were hands off, but Rivian CEO and founder RJ Scaringe, 36, was more accessible, mingling for hours at the mostly outdoor gathering, talking about the company’s ambitious plans to boost the local economy and change the way the world drives.
“This is home for us, so we wanted to make sure the folks that live here and hear about us and are talking about us, actually have a chance to meet us firsthand,” Scaringe said.
Founded 10 years ago, Plymouth, Michigan-based Rivian is gaining traction in its mission to become the Tesla of trucks, drawing more than $1.5 billion in investments this year from Ford, Cox Automotive and Amazon, among others. Last month, Rivian announced it will build 100,000 custom electric delivery vehicles for Amazon alongside its consumer-focused truck and SUV.
That news has turned skepticism into optimism for many in Normal.
“The tipping point was Ford and Amazon,” said Chris Koos, a local bicycle shop owner who has been mayor of Normal since 2003. “Locally, that kind of sealed the deal. This is a real company, this is a real product.”
Normal is a big part of Scaringe’s plans, with Rivian buying and retooling the Mitsubishi plant, which closed in July 2015 after nearly 30 years of production. The shutdown of the sprawling factory, once the city’s largest employer, left 1,100 people out of work.
Mitsubishi opened the plant in 1988. In its heyday it produced more than 200,000 vehicles per year, while staffing levels reached about 4,000. By the time Mitsubishi decided to close the plant, annual production was 64,000 vehicles.
Scaringe said he chose to locate in Normal after visiting the factory in 2016, and spending time with locals in the quaint downtown near the Illinois State University campus.
“One of the things that attracted us so much to the plant wasn’t just the actual plant itself,” he said. “It was the fact that the community around the plant and the folks that have worked at the plant were so passionate.”
In addition to $4 million in local incentives, Rivian is set to receive $49.2 million in state tax credits over 15 years if it meets employment and investment targets. Those goals include creating 1,000 new jobs by 2024.
Rivian, whose name already adorns the front of the factory, is bringing in new equipment and making changes to the layout inside.
Some of the plant’s progress was depicted on a large mural inside a pop-up storefront museum at Sunday’s event, documenting the company’s brief history and promising future. As the factory ramps up toward production in late 2020, Scaringe said it will hire “a lot of folks” that worked there for Mitsubishi.
“We’re talking about thousands of jobs,” Scaringe said.
There are currently 156 employees at the Normal plant, the company said.
While Rivian is developing cutting-edge electric vehicle technology, Scaringe said the actual assembly process isn’t all that different from during the plant’s previous incarnation, meaning former Mitsubishi workers should have transferable skills.
“The process of building the cars is not as different as one might think. It still has seats, still has headlights, still has doors — all those things are still very much similar,” Scaringe said.
Inside the pop-up museum, an impromptu reunion took place as a stream of former Mitsubishi workers lined up to drop off resumes in the hopes of landing a job with Rivian — at the very same plant many helped close down four years ago. Jobs listed on a flyer posted near a hiring counter included quality inspectors, maintenance technicians and team leaders.
Trent Boyer, 50, of Clinton, a 27-year veteran of the Mitsubishi plant, was there to explore opportunities.
“I’ve talked to at least a half-dozen guys since I’ve been here,” Boyer said. “I’m sure a lot of them would be more than willing to come back and step in again.”
Hoping for a position with Rivian’s engineering or maintenance department, Boyer was looking to make use of an associate degree in engineering that he earned for free as part of the Mitsubishi severance package. He has held several jobs since then, but said he was ready for an opportunity back inside a factory he never planned to leave.
“A lot of us were expecting that we would retire there after having that many years in there,” Boyer said. “But things happen in life, you have to move on sometimes.”
Outside, admirers viewed the R1T pickup and the R1S SUV, which will be able to go from zero to 60 mph in about 3 seconds and travel up to 400 miles on a single charge.
Nicholas Zelinski, 29, a software engineer from Bolingbrook, was already sold, having preordered the $69,000 base model truck with a $1,000 refundable deposit.
He made the four-hour round-trip drive from suburban Chicago to Normal on Sunday with his parents to get his first in-person look at the truck and was “blown away” by what he saw.
Others remained a little skeptical.
Mike Barclay, 76, and his wife, Gretta, 79, of Normal, were having lunch at La Bamba, a Mexican restaurant featuring “Burritos as Big as Your Head,” when they saw the steady stream of passersby headed to the nearby Uptown Circle where the Rivian event was taking place.
“I think it’s very exciting for this town,” Gretta Barclay said. “People lost jobs when Mitsubishi left. It’s wonderful for this community to have something like this.
Her husband, a pickup truck owner, didn’t see himself as a potential buyer. “A $70,000 starting price for the pickup truck is pretty hefty,” he said.