Washington, DC CNN  — 

Mike O’Grady still remembers the fear he felt on Mitsubishi’s last day in Normal, Illinois, in 2015. The factory had sat on the outskirts of Normal and its twin city, Bloomington, since 1988.

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.

Mitsubishi's plant was home to 3,000 jobs before the company left Illinois. (2004 photo)

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.

Now Central Illinois, best known for auto insurance, corn and soybeans, finds itself hosting a startup that touts its own expertise in lithium ion battery architecture and cloud computing. The majority of new vehicles sold worldwide in 2040 are forecast to be electric, and Rivian appears set on taking a big slice of that pie. Rivian is building a pickup truck and SUV that will start at about $70,000 and have more than 300 miles of range. The vehicles are designed for adventuring, and are capable of wading through water that’s more than three feet deep, according to the company. Rivian is also building a vehicle charging network, and says it will have more than 13,500 chargers before 2024.

Rivian is expanding its factory in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois. (Courtesy, Rivian)

Amazon, which has highlighted Rivian’s use of its cloud computing technology, has agreed to purchase 100,000 delivery vans from the company. It’s also led a $700 million funding round, part of the $8 billion Rivian has raised since 2019.

The partnership also gives Rivian and Bloomington-Normal a stake in the rivalry between Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who compete in space exploration and now on electric vehicles, as they jockey for the title of world’s richest person.

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.

When State Farm, headquartered in Bloomington-Normal since 1922, wanted to add offices, it didn’t choose its hometown. Instead it added an office in Arizona in 2015. By 2016 it had four new office towers in Dallas. Caterpillar’s headquarters, once an hour from Bloomington-Normal in Peoria, moved to Chicago in 2017.

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.

Rivian's R1S SUV will start at $70,000 and have more than 300 miles of range.

“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 is manufacturing a delivery van for Amazon. (Amazon)

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.

Bloomington-Normal has been energized by the growth of electric vehicle maker Rivian. (2017 photo)

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.”

Rivian plans to deliver its pickup truck, the R1T, this summer.

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.”

The story has been updated to reflect Rivian’s expanding vehicle charging network plans.