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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.

Normal Council Approves Rivian Tax Abatement, Multisport Complex Study

Normal Town Council member Chemberly Cummings during a recent meeting.

The Normal Town Council on Monday voted unanimously to approve Rivian's first property tax breaks for meeting initial investment benchmarks, even as some council members said they want to learn more about the stealthy automaker's operations.

The vote fulfills Normal's end of a bargain reached in 2016 to lure Rivian to the former Mitsubishi manufacturing plant in Normal. The town and other taxing bodies agreed to a five-year, 100 percent property tax abatement if Rivian met certain hiring and plant investment thresholds. In this first year, the company had to buy the plant (which it did, for $16 million) and invest at least $500,000 in project expenses by Dec. 31.

"From our point of view, the risk is fairly minimal, and those benchmarks have to be met."

Normal town staff has “examined the books and records” of Rivian with help from the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council, and the electric vehicle startup has met those two conditions, town officials said. In return, Rivian will see $107,200 in taxes abated after Monday's vote.

Town Council member Chemberly Cummings, who was not on the council when the agreement was approved in 2016, said she still has concerns about deal. She said she’s concerned by the minimal amount of information Rivian has shared with the public and the elected bodies that provide the tax breaks.

“Everything seems very secretive and convoluted at this point,” she said. “I’m just so nervous we’ll be an episode of ‘American Greed’ one day.”

Council member Jeff Fritzen said he was comfortable with the deal, largely because Rivian has to prove it’s met hiring and investment thresholds to get the tax breaks.

“Sure, there’s some gamble and risk in it, but from our point of view, the risk is fairly minimal, and those benchmarks have to be met,” Fritzen said.

Rivian’s first vehicle will be a five-passenger truck, introduced in 2020, followed by a seven-passenger SUV. It’s hiring for manufacturing positions in Normal, plus engineering and IT jobs around the country. Rivian founder and CEO RJ Scaringe has declined interview requests.

Meanwhile, Rivian announced last week it recently added five new members to its executive team. That includes Matt Tall, Rivian's vice president of manufacturing, who will lead both plant operations and advanced manufacturing at the company's Normal plant. Tall joined the company in November.

Multisport Complex Study

Meanwhile, the Normal Town Council also voted unanimously to spend $47,000 to hire a Florida-based company to study the feasibility of opening a local multisport complex.

Sports Facilities Advisory LLC is expected to deliver its final report in three months. Normal’s study is expected to include research and market analysis, including the identification of potential sites; a financial forecast for a five-year period, including construction and operating costs; and a deeper look at the future economic impact.

The study will help Normal leaders decide whether to pursue the new multisport complex, which some see as a potential regional and national destination for youth and adult sports.

Town Council member R.C. McBride said he’s supportive of the concept, though he said the study does not commit Normal to ultimately building the facility. He said the community has a successful track record with youth sports tourism, including events at Champion Fields, Illinois High School Association (IHSA) tournaments, and the State Farm Holiday Classic.

“We’ve already proven that we are a successful sports hub, and I think we can build upon that,” he said.

Council members said they’ve heard concerns from constituents about spending tens of thousands of dollars on a study amid a lean budget year.

“People scoff at spending this kind of money on a study. But we don’t have the in-house expertise or time to conduct this kind of study (ourselves),” Fritzen said.

Supporters say there’s some urgency to the project because two youth soccer leagues—Prairie Cities and Illinois Fire Juniors—are looking for a new home. The Central Illinois Regional Airport has wanted the soccer leagues to vacate Community Fields off Ireland Grove and Towanda Barnes Roads for years because the fields are close to a runway. The leagues would be a potential tenant at the new multisport complex.

Developers Katie Kim and Dave Stark are pushing their version of the multisport complex—a public-private partnership on Bloomington-Normal’s west side.

Council member Kevin McCarthy said the project has significant economic development potential, bringing new tourism dollars—and tax revenue—to the community.

McCarthy noted a decline in total local employment. Indeed, the Bloomington-Normal economy had around 94,500 jobs in December 2017, down from a peak of 105,000 in 2010.

“The big idea is, economic development is bringing dollars from outside our community into our community. If you look around our community, this is the only significant economic development idea in our community today. This is it. This is the only one,” McCarthy said.

Editor’s note: Town Council member R.C. McBride is also GLT’s general manager.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.