NORMAL, Ill. – When the Mitsubishi plant closed in July 2015 after years of dwindling production, the mood in Normal was decidedly somber. The sprawling factory, once the city's largest employer, went dark, leaving 1,100 people out of work and many fearing it would end up as a massive hole in the ground.
More than a year passed without a buyer, and a liquidator was preparing to sell the factory for scrap.
"It was within a couple weeks of getting torn down," said Chris Koos, a local bicycle shop owner who has been mayor of Normal since 2003. "We were kind of dejected."
Then in 2016 came Rivian and its 30-something founder and CEO, R.J. Scaringe, an engineer who had this crazy idea of buying and retooling the factory to build an all-electric pickup truck. Koos and just about everybody else in Normal were justifiably skeptical.
Three years later, it's a different story: Scaringe now owns the property, Amazon took a stake in the company recently, dazzling prototypes have been unveiled and Normal is beginning to believe that maybe, just maybe, Rivian will bring the plant back to life, and recharge the central Illinois city.
"The general tone for the first year, year and a half, was is this real or not?" said Koos, 70. "Now I think there's a lot of optimism."
There wasn't much optimism in September 2016, when Scaringe paid a visit to the Coffee Hound, a haunt favored by hipsters near the Illinois State University campus.
Scaringe had been kicking the tires at the plant with John Shook, a manufacturing expert and Rivian board member. They were impressed with the well maintained, 30-year-old factory, which once hummed along with two shifts turning out 200,000 vehicles a year.
"We sat down and just spent a good deal of time in the coffee shop, just getting a sense of the mood of the community, getting a sense of the people," said Scaringe, 36. "Of course, nobody knew who we were, what we were asking or what we were doing, so it was an interesting time in the coffee shop."
Now, with a $700 million Amazon-led investment, the company has raised about $1.4 billion and is on track to begin production next year.
There is a long way to go, to be sure, and many in Normal still feel burned by Mitsubishi. But civic leaders and residents say there just might be something to this crazy Rivian idea.
Founded by Scaringe in 2009, Rivian employs about 750 people at its Michigan headquarters, technology and engineering operations in California and the former Mitsubishi plant in Normal, which the company bought for $16 million from a liquidation firm in January 2017.
The company unveiled sleek prototypes of its electric pickup truck and SUV models in November at the Los Angeles Auto Show, winning praise for their innovative design and performance capability. The company says the high-end model of its pickup, the R1T, will be able to go from zero to 60 mph in about 3 seconds and travel up to 400 miles on a single charge.
The company has set an annual target of 20,000 to 25,000 vehicles over the first two years of production, with the ambitious goal of eventually producing 250,000 vehicles per year.
In addition to $4 million in local incentives, Rivian is set to receive $49.2 million in state tax credits over 15 years if it meets employment and investment targets for the Normal facility. Those goals include creating 1,000 new jobs by 2024.
Koos, who in addition to being mayor has owned Vitesse Cycle, a bicycle shop in Normal, for more than 40 years, was like many of his constituents, initially skeptical that Rivian was for real.
"It was a big unknown for us," Koos said. "This was a startup. We didn't know what we were getting into, but we knew we had to save that facility."
Normal, about 130 miles south of Chicago, is the smaller sibling of its twin city, Bloomington, which is perhaps best known as the home of State Farm Insurance. The city of about 54,000, of course, had a lot more to offer Rivian than a good cup of coffee, including the vacant auto plant, a displaced skilled workforce, and the millions of dollars in state and local incentives.
More than anything, there was the need to replace a void in the economic and cultural landscape of the community left by Mitsubishi's closing.
At its heyday in the 1990s, the plant had 3,600 employees, 12 vendors who set up shop to service the plant and two Japanese restaurants to feed transplanted executives and adventurous locals. All were gone by the time Mitsubishi pulled up stakes amid long-slumping sales.
Mitsubishi opened the Normal plant in 1988 as a joint venture with Chrysler, producing sport coupes and, later, sedans. Mitsubishi bought out Chrysler's stake in the joint venture in 1991 but continued to supply the Detroit automaker with its cars through 2005.
By the time Mitsubishi closed the plant, annual production had fallen to 64,000 vehicles and the workforce was down to less than a third of what it had been.
At the time they were cut loose, employees had an average age of 52, and the prospects of finding a comparable job in the area were bleak, said Jerry Berwanger, former chief operating officer at the Mitsubishi plant.
"There's not that many $24-an-hour jobs in Bloomington-Normal for labor," said Berwanger, 71, who helped shut down the plant and has since retired to Kansas City.
Berwanger said employees were offered job training and about six to eight months' severance on average. When the money ran out, some took auto jobs in the South, some went to the Chrysler plant in Belvidere, Ill., and many took whatever jobs they could find in Normal.
Rivian has hired about 70 people in Normal, including some former Mitsubishi employees, to help convert the plant to building the new electric trucks. Scaringe said the available talent pool played into his decision to locate manufacturing in Normal.
"The access to very capable and very skilled talent was important to us," Scaringe said.
At the Coffee Hound older patrons sipped coffee from white mugs, chatting away on a variety of subjects, including an increased confidence that auto manufacturing was returning to Normal.
"It was a shame to see [the plant] just sitting there," said Paul Spitz, 66, of Bloomington, who used to work for the Illinois Department of Transportation. "We've been hearing encouraging news lately."