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Watch now: Illinois state government linked to Rivian plant's past, future

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SPRINGFIELD — I first heard the name Rivian when I was a cub reporter for The State Journal-Register, the daily newspaper in Illinois’ capital city, in 2018.

My veteran colleague Bernie Schoenburg had taken a keen interest in the relatively new electric vehicle automaker, which was set to take over the shuttered Mitsubishi plant in Normal with the help of some incentives from state and local government.

Bernie’s engrossment was partly tied to his personal history — as a reporter for The Pantagraph in the 1980s, he was among those who covered then-Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson’s efforts to lure Mitsubishi and Chrysler to Central Illinois.

Little did he know that it would be a story he would still be covering 30 years later, illustrating state government's involvement with the Normal plant throughout its different iterations

This appears poised to continue as Rivian continues to build out its operations and Illinois state government enacts policies promoting electric vehicles as a means to decarbonize the transportation sector. 

Incentives lure Mitsubishi

“Big Jim” landed the Japanese automaker in October 1985 with an incentives package that included $80 million in direct state spending, $20 million local tax abatements and $160 million in state tax breaks. It was more than double what any other state was offering at the time.

“We were determined to be the best,” Thompson said at the time.

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The front page of The Pantagraph on October 7, 1985, after it was announced that Mitsubishi would build a $500-million auto plant in the Twin Cities. The plant would open in 1988, shutter in 2016 and later be bought by Rivian. 

A month later, 100-person Illinois trade mission traveled to Japan, hoping to build out the supply chain needed to support the new $500 million-auto plant and lure more businesses to Illinois. Bernie was a working reporter on that trip, where he toured a Mitsubishi plant similar to what would be built in Normal.

The 2.4 million-square foot Normal plant opened in 1988 as Diamond-Star Motors Corp., named for the three-diamond logo that represented Mitsubishi and the pentastar that signified Chrysler. Mitsubishi bought out Chrysler in 1991 and four years later the plant was known as Mitsubishi Motors Manufacturing of America. It was renamed MMNA in 2002.

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News coverage of trade missions undertaken by Gov. Jim Thompson to Japan after the state landed a Mitsubishi plant in 1985. 

At its peak, the plant produced more than 200,000 vehicles per year. And over a nearly 30-year period, more than 3.2 million vehicles made it through the assembly line — the company’s only North American manufacturing facility. Bloomington-Normal officials estimated that the plant, which employed 3,900 people at its peak, had a $120 million annual impact on the local economy.

Good times did not last as a decline in U.S. sales precipitated the plant’s closure in 2016.

Rivian gives plant second life

But it did not take long for the plant to be given a second life. Rivian, the California-based EV automaker, purchased the plant in 2017 for $16 million. Like Mitsubishi, tax incentives helped sweeten the deal.

The company is in line to receive up to $49.5 million in state tax breaks through the EDGE, or Economic Development for a Growing Economy, program. No incentives have been paid out yet, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity confirmed.

Per an amended agreement with the state, Rivian has until the end of 2021 to claim credits before the agreement, based on the company's commitment to create 1,050 jobs and to invest $185 million in capital, expires. 

“As part of our bold plan for a clean energy future that enhances our communities and creates jobs, the Pritzker administration is committed to supporting the continued growth of the electric vehicle industry here in Illinois," said DCEO spokeswoman Lauren Huffman. "We remain closely engaged with Rivian to support their ongoing investments in Normal."

"While the State has yet to issue any tax credits for Rivian, we are currently working with the company to assist them in submitting for credits based on an agreed to level of investment in creating new jobs and activity for the region," she added.

The agreements were initially struck under former Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration. This made Rauner's later claims that “I can’t give this plant away" all the more puzzling

“No auto company wants to invest in Illinois because of (House Speaker Michael) Madigan’s power, because of regulations and taxes,” Rauner said on several occasions in 2017 and 2018.

The only problem with that statement was that Rivian had already purchased the plant — with state help. And Rauner personally welcomed Rivian to Illinois in 2017, touring the facility with CEO RJ Scaringe.

But it went against the narrative that Rauner was trying to paint, which was that Illinois was not business-friendly due to the policies of legislative Democrats.

Bernie took Rauner to task many times for these false statements. This is honestly how I first became aware of Rivian, a company founded in 2009. 

Rauner wasn’t necessarily wrong on the broader point. Illinois’ corporate tax rate is among the highest in the nation and business leaders routinely complain about onerous regulations and high costs imposed on them, such as worker’s compensation.

But Rivian has been by all accounts been an Illinois success story.

The company has added an additional 800,000 square feet to the facility and purchased 380 adjacent acres of farmland for future expansions. It now employs more than 3,000 people in Normal, a number that could rise to more than 5,000 in 2022, according to some estimates. 

In its initial public offering in August, the company sought a valuation of $80 billion. And the company made history last month, bringing the first fully battery-powered electric pickup to market.

Amazon will be among the company's biggest customers, agreeing to purchase up to 100,000 electric vans, which will be produced in Normal.

State promotes EVs in energy bill 

It all comes amid a significant state and federal push to promote electric vehicles as a means of decarbonizing the transportation sector. President Joe Biden signed an executive order earlier this year calling for half the fleet of U.S. automobiles sold in 2030 to be electric.

And perhaps more consequentially, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed landmark clean energy legislation in September that includes a $4,000 subsidy for purchasing electric vehicles and provides a roadmap for building out the state’s EV infrastructure. The legislation sets a goal of having 1 million electric vehicles on the road in Illinois by 2030.

According to a report from Advanced Energy Economy, a national trade association, the state’s electric transportation industry is expected to grow 83% by 2024, from about 5,000 jobs to 9,500 jobs.

In 2021, the state topped Site Selection magazine’s list of top locations for sustainable development in part due to the presence of Rivian and the state’s plans for EV expansion.

"Our strategic push to expand our burgeoning electric vehicle industry, supporting manufacturers like Lion Electric and Rivian, is an example of the many sustainable and renewable energy projects around our state,” Pritzker said. “Every day we see more companies choosing Illinois to scale environmentally beneficial products that create good, 21st century jobs.”

There are currently only 31,197 electric vehicles out of nearly 9.2 million registered in Illinois, according to Henry Haupt, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office.

Scaling up to meet those goals will be a massive undertaking, but the state seems to be in a better position than most to meet those challenges.

When Mitsubishi came to town in the 1980s, it was seen as a significant shot in the arm to counteract significant job losses in the manufacturing sector.

By the same token, Rivian is bringing significant jobs to central Illinois and putting the region on the forefront of the electrification of the transportation sector.

As one American poet put it, “the future’s uncertain and the end is always near.” Mitsubishi didn’t last in Normal. Questions remain about Rivian and the EV industry as a whole.

But for now, the plant’s revival is a positive story that counteracts the conventional wisdom out there about Illinois’ business climate. It's bee quite a 30-year arc for a factory on the west side of Normal.

Rivian declined comment for this report.

*An earlier version of this story stated that Gov. Jim Thompson led a trade mission to Japan in 1985. Thompson did not make his planned trip due to overtime veto session. The story has been updated to reflect that. 


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