NORMAL, Ill. — Rivian is still a year away from rolling its first electric trucks off the line at a converted Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Illinois, 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 last week 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 Normal.
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 Normal plant in 1988, which in its heyday 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 had fallen to 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,” Scaringe 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 the 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.
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. It was the first Illinois showing of the vehicles, which made their debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November.
While not ready to offer test drives, Scaringe said the prototypes are fully functional and attested to their performance through firsthand experience.
“When you’re on the road it feels really precise,” he said. “But then you go off road and instantly, the vehicle is the best off-road vehicle you’ll ever be in.”
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 roundtrip drive from suburban Chicago to Normal with his parents to get his first in-person look at the truck and was “blown away” by what he saw.
“I got close — could reach my hand toward it — but haven’t gotten to go in it,” Zelinski said. “From seeing it, it looks like it’s going to be really good.”
Zelinski also received a Rivian mug handed out to preorder customers and then got an unexpected bonus — an autograph and selfie with Scaringe.
Rivian did not disclose how many preorders it has received, but there were at least a handful of mug-bearing future vehicle owners schmoozing with Scaringe at Sunday’s event.
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.
When they finished their meal, they joined the crowd to see what all the hubbub was about.
“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 — I think it’s very futuristic.”
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.
Mel Pruss, 58, of Metamora, who worked at the Mitsubishi plant throughout its 27-year run, came to the Rivian event “just to look — to see what they had to offer,” including any potential jobs.
Pruss has had a few different jobs since the plant closed four years ago, and now works for the Hallmark Cards plant in Metamora, which makes retail display racks for the greeting card giant.
While hopeful, he too expressed some disbelief that the old Mitsubishi plant would soon be reborn as the production home of Rivian.
“It just seems weird to me,” Pruss said, waiting in line to drop off his resume. “I just didn’t think it would ever happen.”
While Rivian is developing cutting-edge electric vehicle technology, Scaringe said the actual assembly process isn’t all that different than 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 steady 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 with Rivian.
“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.”
Brad Fish, 55, of Bloomington, Illinois, worked as an electrician at the Mitsubishi plant for 21 years. “I walked out the last day,” Fish said.
Now working at a factory in Clinton as a maintenance technician, he has already applied online with Rivian for a chance to return to his old profession. He was hoping to make his case for being hired in person at Sunday’s event. “It would mean a lot to me and my family,” Fish said.