NORMAL — Local officials took issue Thursday with Gov. Bruce Rauner saying electric car startup Rivian Automotive was "pretty much given the (former Mitsubishi) plant" in Normal and that its presence reflects a poor business climate.
"That's not entirely accurate," said Normal Mayor Chris Koos. "Rivian did buy the plant (for $16 million). It wasn't given to them. ... I'm not sure why the governor is criticizing it."
The Republican seeking a second term as governor told the State Journal-Register in Springfield the plant "should have well over 1,000 people today" — similar to the 1,200 Mitsubishi had before the plant stopped manufacturing in November 2015 — while speaking about how state regulations are driving employers away.
"No one would come in. No one would even take the plant if we gave it to them, because our regulations are so hostile to business and our taxes are so high,” the paper quoted Rauner saying at an event in Chicago. The governor later said Rivian "didn’t really buy it."
A Rivian spokesperson said the company "is excited to be part of the Bloomington-Normal community" and reiterated its progress in Normal so far.
"We purchased the 2.6 million-square-foot automotive manufacturing facility and its contents in 2017 for $16 million in an all-cash deal and only received performance based incentives for future job creation and investment," according to a statement. "Rivian has exceeded our target job creation numbers for 2018 and we are on track to continue plant improvements and bring the plant up to full working order to produce our first vehicles which will go on sale in 2020."
Rauner told WJBC on Wednesday, "I love Rivian" and that he hopes the company succeeds, but he reiterated the view that the startup using the plant is a risky venture and a reflection of a tough sell to potential occupants.
"Mitsubishi left because of an internal decision — they weren't selling well in America. It wasn't because Illinois is a bad place for business," said Zach Dietmeier, director of marketing and communications for the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council.
Koos said that even if another high-profile automaker had been willing to step in — Rivian has yet to mass-produce a vehicle and has only 50 employees in Normal, though it hopes to sell a vehicle in 2020 and employ 1,000 there — it's unrealistic to expect the plant to be operational again so soon.
"We did a lot of due diligence with Rivian. ... We were not giving that factory away to anybody walking through the door," said Dietmeier — EDC was part of a team that looked for a year for a new manufacturer. "They had a vision that was in sync with our McLean County community, and that means a lot."
The company has 350 total employees.
Dietmeier said that although the state has challenges for businesses, EDC doesn't view it as an impossible hurdle in attracting employers.
In fact, state tax incentives helped attract not only Rivian — which could total $49.5 million if hiring targets are met — but the Brandt Group of Companies, the ag manufacturer that bought the former Kongskilde plant north of Normal.
Dietmeier added that while government partnerships are important to EDC's work, they're not the only thing it can offer to potential local employers.
"Brandt was a great example of this. The first question they asked is, 'Why would we want to come to Illinois?' We had to explain to them, 'You're not coming to Illinois, in a sense; you're coming to McLean County,'" said Dietmeier. "(The state) doesn't impact the quality of the workforce we have here now or the assistance from the community."
Brandt, like Rivian, got performance-based property tax abatements from local taxing bodies in addition to state incentives. Brandt started producing grain augers and conveyors locally this month.
"Our job is to bring business to McLean County, and that benefits Bloomington, Normal, the county and the state," said Dietmeier.
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