NORMAL — Normal showed why it's "the envy of communities across the country" Sunday.
Thousands gathered around Uptown Circle as electric car startup Rivian held a community showcase with three prototype vehicles that will be manufactured at the former Mitsubishi plant starting next year — a demonstration of Rivian's growth since it came to town in 2016 and a sign of what's to come.
"When this project came to the (McLean) County Board, there was a lot of skepticism. It's a start-up in the electric car industry. ... But here was a chance for this community to see the upside of an exploding industry," said County Board member Carlo Robustelli. "To be here, with the cars, around the circle ... it's really exciting, and it's a testament to forward thinking."
Elected and business leaders including Gov. J.B. Pritzker attended to see the R1T pickup and R1S SUV up close and chat with Rivian staffers including CEO RJ Scaringe, who led Pritzker on a guided tour of the vehicles.
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"Rivian is going to be one of the largest car companies in the world, and it's going to be based right here in Normal — its manufacturing is," said Pritzker. "I'm thrilled ... for the people of Normal and for Illinois that we have manufacturing that's reviving in our state, and this is advanced manufacturing with an advanced vehicle that's the leader in the world."
The plant has nearly 200 employees and is expected to exceed 1,000 after the first Rivian vehicles hit the market in late 2020. Officials said the vast majority of those employed by Rivian in Normal are from the community, including former Mitsubishi workers who helped open, run and close the plant and are now overseeing its revival and conversion to a new kind of facility.
"There's some changes we're seeing on the outside, but what's really happening is what's on the inside of the facility. We're bringing new equipment in. We're making changes to the layout of the plant, the lines," said Scaringe. "Once that's set up, we'll really start to ramp up, and that involves a lot of hiring. ... As the facility starts to get into full-line production, we're talking about thousands of jobs."
Pritzker told Scaringe the variety of officials to attend Sunday showed Rivian can expect the full support of federal, state and local leaders who represent the area. The company is in line to receive more than $50 million in state and local incentives for the Normal plant if it meets hiring and investment targets.
U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Dunlap, said Sunday's display confirmed his belief that Rivian will be for trucks what Tesla has been for passenger vehicles, and he's eager to help by promoting tax credits and investing in the workforce.
"I just heard today they're even thinking about expanding the plant further... so infrastructure in and out will be crucial," said LaHood.
Rivian did not confirm Sunday if it has any plans to expand the plant.
"Anything we can do in the way of state incentives to help the production and purchase of these vehicles, we want to look at," said State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, of how the state government can help Rivian. "Having the governor here to see firsthand what we're talking about is a big plus for that."
Normal Mayor Chris Koos said he took the interest in Sunday's event — with thousands swarming Uptown Circle to see the vehicles up close but not touch or drive them — as "validation" the town was wise to invest in the company, and Rivian holding the event was "affirmation" it values that relationship.
"This backs up of what Rivian tells us: that they're committed to this community, they like this community, their employees like being in this community, and this is their way of saying, 'We're here,'" he said. "This is something you can see and know it's going to be manufactured in Normal."
Rivian's signage Sunday reflected that partnership, reading "adventurous together."
Patrick Hoban, CEO of the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council, said he hopes Sunday's festivities bring more attention to McLean County and pave the way for economic growth, including around the plant.
"When it comes to finding suppliers, going out and telling the story of how (Rivian is) successful here only helps," he said. "Their story is our story. When they succeed, we're all going to succeed."
Photos: Rivian rolls out its adventure electric vehicles in Uptown Normal
Rivian lands in uptown
Contact Derek Beigh at (309) 820-3234. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_beigh