O’Grady, then an executive with the Bloomington Normal Economic Development Council, stood outside the manufacturing plant and watched as its 1,000 workers exited for the last time. The plant had its good years, peaking at 3,000 jobs. Tax revenue from the its SUV production had been huge, he recalled. He worried about the impact on the school district.
O’Grady had feared this day might come. Two years prior, he reached out to Mitsubishi and was assured the plant wouldn’t leave town, he said.
Six years after Mitsubishi left, O’Grady, and all of Bloomington-Normal, can feel better about a day that felt like “a kick in the butt,” as O’Grady puts it. Rivian, an electric vehicle company, surprised O’Grady and others when it took over the plant in 2017. Rivian has been on a rocketship trajectory since, with its valuation growing to a reported $27.6 billion this year, and local leaders credit the electric vehicle maker’s arrival with invigorating Bloomington-Normal’s future.
Bloomington and Normal are among several cities nationwide riding the wave of electric vehicle excitement in the last two years. Casa Grande, Arizona, population 55,000, will be home to a factory for electric vehicle startup Lucid Motors. Sparks, Nevada, with 100,000 residents next to the better-known city of Reno, hosts Tesla’s gigafactory. These cities didn’t have a reputation as hotbeds for innovation in decades past.
Bloomington-Normal can feel the effects of Rivian’s growing significance. Some real estate agents are asking potential home buyers to submit their offers just hours after open houses end, a practice local real estate agent Greg Zavitz said he hadn’t previously seen in 35 years of business in the area. Hotels are filling with Rivian employees, defying the national trend of vacancies brought on by the pandemic. Residents say optimism and excitement are high as Rivian’s presence has helped Bloomington-Normal buck the trend of Midwestern states and smaller cities struggling in the digital age.
“It doesn’t happen here”
Bloomington-Normal residents were used to companies looking past them even before Mitsubishi left.
Local leaders expected the Mitsubishi plant to be leveled after the automaker sold it to a liquidator. O’Grady was told the plant wasn’t modern enough.
“It would become a huge concrete slab in the middle of the prairie that you’d never farm again, never be able to use,” O’Grady said.
Detroit’s automakers weren’t interested, Normal Mayor Chris Koos told CNN Business. Rivian employees toured the facility just weeks before it was set to be demolished, and the company decided to make a bid.
“This is the Midwest, it doesn’t happen here,” Mayor Koos recalls being told by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) after sharing the news that Rivian wanted to buy the Mitsubishi plant.
Durbin said it with a chuckle, according to Koos, alluding to how things have been in the past for the Midwest, and how they were used to getting passed over.
Koos and other locals described Rivian to CNN Business as a company that was quiet when it first arrived in 2017. Some residents had doubts. In 2018, the EV maker didn’t earn a tax incentive the government had set up to entice Rivian to meet requirements for buying new plant equipment.
Many leaders point to Rivian’s deal in 2019 for 100,000 vans with Amazon as an inflection point. Koos describes the company’s growth as “unbelievable.”
Rivian has expanded the 2.6 million square foot plant by nearly 1 million square feet, and is targeting adding 2,500 more manufacturing jobs this year on top of the 940 full-time employees already in Bloomington-Normal, according to Rivian spokeswoman Amy Mast.
“It’s just been expansion after expansion,” said Patrick Hoban, who leads the Bloomington Normal Economic Development Council. “They literally blew the doors off that facility because they’re growing so fast.”
Local businesses feel an impact
Migidi Tembo, general manager of the Bloomington-Normal Marriott, credits Rivian with reviving his business. He said he feared that he’d have to shut down when the pandemic hit. Most of his employees were furloughed.
Since July 2020 he said that 75% of his occupancy has been associated with Rivian, and noted that he’s been at capacity during much of this month.
“I’m really a big advocate for Rivian,” Tembo said. “It’s almost like an industrial revolution is going on in my backyard.”
Marty Trunk, who has lived in Bloomington-Normal for more than 30 years, says he’s seen Rivian attract younger people to the area. Trunk, a home builder, said he’s adding high-voltage outlets to new homes to cater to Rivian employees. His said his doubts about Rivian have faded.
“The hope and prayer was, could they get it together,” Trunk said. “I’m absolutely totally excited. I’m prouder than I’ve ever been to be a resident of Normal, Illinois.”