Normal Town Council member R.C. McBride sees Rivian as an example of how Normal and McLean County can turn challenges of the changing economy into success stories.
McBride is running for a second term on the council in the April 2019 election. He is also GLT’s general manager.
He said events like the closure of Normal’s Mitsubishi Auto plant in 2015 and now changes in State Farm’s workforce highlight the need for a shift in thinking.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that for probably 25, 30 years, our entire community has been on autopilot with economic development,” he said. “We haven’t had to think about this a whole lot.”
After Mitsubishi closed up shop, laying off its 1,200 person workforce, the factory faced demolition.
Instead, local officials and economic development leaders worked to attract the automaker to Normal.
“I think that’s a success story, and I think it, as we move forward, has the chance to be a tremendous success story,” said McBride. “You’re not going to have a Rivian all the time, but I do think we were able to navigate what could have been a crisis fairly well,” said McBride.
Some have criticized the five-year, 100 percent property tax abatement the Town and other taxing bodies offered Rivian to set up shop in the vacant building.
McBride said he heard those criticisms, and put them to Rivian founder RJ Scaringe.
“I point blank asked him, ‘Why are these incentives required? Why do you need these? When you look at what you’re getting from the state, our contribution is very small by comparison.”
Scaringe replied the automaker’s board needed to see that Normal was willing to put some skin in the game, according to McBride.
McBride noted Rivian had to meet certain performance standards in order to receive any incentives. The company had to meet initial investment and hiring benchmarks in order to receive its first tax abatement last February.
With those in place, “We have a far greater chance to look back and say, ‘That was a smart thing we did,’ as opposed to saying, ‘It didn’t work out so well,’” he said.
Both BN Advantage and the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council had a hand in attracting Rivian to Normal. They also both receive funding from the Town.
Bloomington, Normal and County officials called for greater transparency from the EDC following a quick decision on an incentives package for Brandt Industries, and from BN Advantage when private investment in the organization fell short of expectations.
McBride served on the BN Advantage Marketing and Communications Task Force. He said while both organizations have some “success stories” -- and even some behind-the-scenes work that goes unnoticed -- they can “absolutely” do better.
“Should we demand that we do better? Yes, I think so.”
The main goal of BN Advantage -- to unite public and private organizations under a regional economic development strategy -- is still worthwhile, he says.
“I think at times we have struggled, all of us -- and there’s plenty of blame to go around -- to climb over that obstacle of, ‘We are one community and we are in this together,’” he said. “That’s a big part of what BN Advantage was supposed to do. We’re trying, we’re moving forward, and hopefully we’ll continue to see some success.”
Workforce development is a big area of focus, said McBride.
“We have fantastic universities -- what is required to keep those young people here when they graduate? What kind of jobs do they need? What kind of resources, what kind of environment is required for them to be encouraged to show off their entrepreneurship in our community, and to do that in Bloomington-Normal instead of going to Chicago or the West Coast?”
“There’s no magic bullet,” he continued. “I don’t have the simplified answer, but I think I have a lot of the right questions.”
McBride on other issues:
He said the $49 million sports complex proposed by a consultant in July would bring significant dollars into the community, but that doesn't mean the town would recover its investment in the project. It would take significant private investment and cooperation between Bloomington and Normal to make the project a reality, something McBride said he’s not optimistic will happen. “However, that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.”
He also said there’s been misinformation spread, though unintentionally, about the Trail East project in Uptown, particularly about the historic buildings and community mural slated for demolition. While he appreciates residents’ passion for their preservation, the potential gains for Uptown outweigh the losses. “It’s going to be a big deal to see 300 professionals coming to Uptown to work Monday through Friday from 8-5,” he said. “That is going to do a lot for Uptown businesses, it’s going to do a lot for the vibrant atmosphere there. And that was all part of the plan.” He said the council recognizes they may have overlooked the importance of public art and its role in giving Uptown a “sense of place.
On the idea of an expansion or new building for the Normal Public Library, McBride said he agrees with those who feel the project is key to creating a more vibrant community. However, with no revenue stream to cover the cost of such a project, the idea may need to be delayed a few years. “It’s not gone, it’s not forgotten, it’s not stuck on a shelf somewhere...but we’re not going to be able to do it in the short term.”
“I’m very proud of a lot of the work we’ve been able to accomplish over the last three-and-a-half years,” McBride said. “I’ve never been someone who wanted to be in one of these offices for a long period of time, but I feel there’s still some unfinished business moving forward. I think and I hope folks feel that I still have something to give.”
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