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WGLT, an NPR station in central Illinois, is following every move at the Rivian manufacturing plant in Normal, Illinois. The electric vehicle startup has gone from stealth mode to big-time player in the auto world, attracting attention (and big money) from companies like Ford and Amazon.

B-N Gets First Look At Rivian Vehicles During Uptown Event

Two years after arriving to a community filled with the hopeful and the doubtful, the electric automaker Rivian received an enthusiastic reception Sunday in Uptown Normal as it showed off three vehicles and invited jobseekers to apply at its manufacturing plant.

Rivian founder and CEO RJ Scaringe spoke to hundreds in attendance after showing off his vehicles to Gov. JB Pritzker. Crowds hovered around the three vehicles—including a new blue version of Rivian’s electric pickup—that were scattered around Uptown circle.

One of those in the crowd was Victor Ramirez, who worked for the Mitsubishi plant before it closed and later sold to Rivian. He’s spent the past few years doing maintenance on the thousands of recalled Volkswagen cars that have been parked outside the plant for the last few years. But that job is over now, and he came to Uptown Normal on Sunday looking for a job at Rivian.

blue Rivian
Credit Megan McGowan / WGLT
A blue version of Rivian's R1T pickup was on display Sunday in Uptown Normal.

“I want to do everything. I did everything for Mitsubishi,” said Ramirez. “I drove a fork lift. I worked in the paint shop, body shop, engine assembly. I worked all over the plant.”

He had to say goodbye to a lot of co-workers when Mitsubishi closed in 2015. They were like family, he said. Some of them were re-hired when Rivian bought the plant in 2017.

Ramirez said he was thrilled when he heard about Rivian.

“The economy is gonna be booming in Bloomington-Normal,” he said.

For most people in the crowd, it was their first opportunity to see Rivian’s vehicles in person. When Rivian won millions in local and state tax breaks in late 2016, there was no publicly available vehicle to look at—or even a drawing of one. Rivian’s launch vehicles—a R1T pickup and R1S sport utility vehicle—were not unveiled until the LA Auto Show in November 2018.

Rivian now has around 130 employees in Normal, and it previously said it plans to hire at least 1,000 workers by 2024. Rivian says the first vehicles are expected to be on the road by late 2020.

“And as the facility starts to move to full-volume production, we’re talking thousands of jobs,” Scaringe said Sunday.

Scaringe gave Pritzker a 1-on-1 tour of the vehicles. Illinois, after all, is a Rivian investor. It pledged up to $49.5 million in EDGE tax credits if Rivian meets certain hiring and investment thresholds. (Rivian failed to meet its 2018 benchmarks to qualify for its tax breaks.)

Pritzker said he expects Rivian to become “one of the largest car companies in the world.”

“I’m thrilled for the people of Normal and Illinois that we have manufacturing that’s reviving in Illinois, and this is advanced manufacturing with an advanced vehicle that’s the leader in the world,” he said.

Pritzker said investing in higher education, like Illinois State University, was important to ensure Rivian has the workforce it needs.

Koos and Scaringe
Credit Megan McGowan / WGLT
Normal Mayor Chris Koos introduces Rivian founder and CEO RJ Scaringe during Sunday's event.

“That talent is replenishable, and it means that companies like Rivian that are gonna have a century long or more of life ahead of them, if they come to Illinois, will be able to get the people they need.”

When asked about the challenge of finding enough workers, Scaringe sounded confident.

“When you look at the combination of manufacturing expertise, with the university system that’s here, we see a wonderful future for ourselves in terms of pulling the right types of talent in,” Scaringe said.

Scaringe said the former Mitsubishi workers were a major selling point when he decided to buy the plant for $16 million—a relative bargain.

“This is about embracing the future,” Scaringe told the crowd. “The people that we saw who had worked at this facility, who had been part of bringing this facility up, from its first vehicles in the 1990s, to running it, to then having to go through the pain of shutting it down, and to see the energy they had about bringing it back to life, you can’t buy that. You can’t buy that kind of passion.”

Rivian was taking resumes during Sunday’s event. Hiring will ramp up in the next 6 to 8 months, said Matt Tall, vice president of manufacturing at Rivian. He moved to Normal about 10 months ago with his wife and leads both plant operations and advanced manufacturing here.

They’ve spent months demolishing the old equipment that Mitsubishi used to build cars, re-engineering and re-tooling the plant to make room for larger trucks, SUVs, and the 100,000 Amazon delivery vans that Rivian will produce, Tall said. Rivian’s batteries will also be made in Normal, and that equipment will start to be installed in December or January, he said.

“Obviously building 100,000 Amazon vehicles brings a different dynamic because of the size,” Tall said. “The sheer size is significantly larger than trucks, so you have to upsize everything in paint as well as through the body shop. But we’ll have a careful plan and be ready.”

Hiring is going “reasonably well,” Tall said.

Several jobs in Normal are now posted on Rivian’s website, including maintenance technician, battery manufacturing engineer, facilities engineer, packaging engineer, and quality assurance engineer. Among the most important jobs are the 500 to 600 team members who will be doing assembly work, said Tall, who most recently was building Mercedes Benz vehicles in Indiana.

Sunday’s event attracted hundreds—at least—of curious community members and travelers who wanted to see Rivian’s vehicles up close.

Among them were friends Matthew White and Brendan Fraley, who both work at State Farm. White, who studied renewable energy at Illinois State University, said he was blown away by the vehicles’ ability to add 200 miles of range in just 30 minutes of charging—and the full cookout setup that was affixed to the R1T pickup just off Uptown circle.

“I hate to speak to (Tesla founder) Elon Musk, but this might blow him out of the water. They’re gonna have quite a bit of competition,” White said. “I’m excited to see them grow. It’s gonna be great for the community as well, it really is.”

Fraley sees that too.

“It’s gonna boost the economy substantially. And once that does happen, maybe the cost of living goes up a little bit, but that’ll force other (employers)—for us to get a raise too. Which raises everybody’s pay over time,” Fraley said. “With all the jobs that Mitsubishi cut, this will just replace that. And honestly I think it’ll be better, because it’s a higher market.”

Normal Town Council member Chemberly Cummings, whose predecessors on the council approved the local tax breaks for Rivian, said it was a “very, very exciting day.” She acknowledged that Rivian’s stealthy arrival and limited sharing of information early on bred skepticism.

“As they’re evolving and changing, and now being more open to the community and understanding we’re more of a family-type of situation here, they feel they can share,” said Cummings. “It leads people to stop having the skeptical thoughts and ideas and understand and embrace who they are and that they’re a part of our community.”

State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, one of several elected officials in the crowd Sunday, said there was even more the state can do to support Rivian. Better road infrastructure around the plant, such as West College Avenue, will be needed so Rivian can move its product, Brady said.

“And obviously getting those vehicles to a purchase price that folks can obtain and afford is something we want to see. But certainly, every step continues to be positive,” Brady said. (The R1T pickup starts at $69,000, and the R1S starts at $72,500.)

“This (event) is the type of thing the community is very hungry for,” Brady said.

Kevin Whitehouse of Normal stopped by Sunday just to check out the vehicles. He said he’s been following Rivian, including recent multimillion-dollar investments from Ford and Amazon.

“We’re certainly embracing the fact that they’re in town. And I think it’s wonderful. Obviously Ford and Amazon think so too. Let’s see what happens. I wish them the best,” Whitehouse said.

Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.
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