Banker's annual report: Farmers had boom year

RANTOUL – The past year wasn't good for Rantoul residents seeking jobs, selling homes or working in retail stores.

But 2005 proved to be a boom year for Rantoul area farmers.

Ed Scharlau, vice chairman of First Busey Corporation, painted a mixed picture of the northern Champaign County economy at his annual economic seminar this morning.

The last 12 months proved to be a bad time for persons looking for industrial jobs unless they wanted to do pork processing.

Overall industrial employment in Rantoul dropped for the second consecutive year.

Cingular Wireless, which eliminated 112 positions, led the way. Collins & Aikman Rantoul Products cut 73 jobs, Eagle Wings Industries slashed 71 positions, JELD-WEN eliminated 62 jobs, and Lason cut 26 positions.

"It is difficult to keep jobs in the Midwest, and there has been a decrease due mainly to changes in the automotive industry," Scharlau said.

But four top Rantoul industrial employers hired additional workers over the past 12 months.

The Meadowbrook Farms pork-processing plant accounted for 116 new jobs.

Bell Sports added 65 positions after acquiring the Riddell Company and moving its commercial distribution center from Elk Grove Village to Rantoul.

"Bell currently produces more than 19,000 bike helmets and 1,000 car seats a day," Scharlau said.

Conair gained 24 workers, and Combe Labs added four new jobs.

Scharlau said that 2005 proved to be a lean year for the Rantoul housing market.

According to statistics from the Multiple Listing Service, the number of single family homes sold in Rantoul dropped from 152 in 2004 to 150 in 2005.

In addition, the average selling price for a home in Rantoul fell from $87,760 in 2004 to $84,497 in 2005.

"On the other hand, Rantoul had more sales in lower priced homes," Scharlau said. "The reasonable housing costs should be a plus for Rantoul."

Scharlau noted that homes in Fort Myers, Fla., are selling for more than $250,000.

"It is very difficult for the average working person to own a home at these prices," he said. "It makes the average price of $84,000 in Rantoul look very attractive."

Meanwhile, the total value of taxable property in Rantoul dropped for the first time since Chanute Air Force Base closed.

One year ago the assessed valuation of the entire village totaled $96 million. This year that total dropped to $93 million.

Scharlau blamed the decrease on reassessments.

Total retail sales also dropped this year in Rantoul, from $131 million in 2004 to $130 million in 2005.

"Sales have been relatively flat due mainly to decreased auto sales," he said. "More than 28 cents of every dollar spent in Rantoul goes for automobiles and gasoline."

Meanwhile, Scharlau had nothing but positive news to report for Rantoul farmers.

While the drought of 2005 set the stage for a bad year for Illinois agriculture, Scharlau said that new figures from Busey Ag Resources indicates a boom year for Rantoul farming.

"Rantoul got a significant amount of rain compared with the rest of Champaign County," he said. "Overall the crops were very good in spite of the dry summer, and the county missed the Asian soybean rust scare due to dry weather."

Overall, area agricultural production rose from $238 million in 2004 to $242 million in 2005.

Scharlau, who provided an advance copy of his speech for The News-Gazette, predicted a turnaround for the local economy in the coming year.

"As we look to 2006, the national economy should enter the new year with much more momentum than seemed likely only a few months ago," Scharlau said. "That should benefit the nation, Champaign County and Rantoul."

Scharlau said that Rantoul residents can take heart from Eastlawn School second-grader Trae Mercer Martin, who recently wrote to The News-Gazette, "I like my neighborhood in Rantoul. A lot of my friends are optimists. I think central Illinois is a good place."

Top Industrial Employers in Rantoul 2004

Company; Number of Employees

1. Collins & Aikman; 1,093

2. JELD-WEN; 672

3. Cingular Wireless; 550

4. Eagle Wings Industries; 346

5. Bell Sports; 265

6. Conair; 213

7. Meadowbrook Farms; 221

8. Combe Labs; 113

9. Lason; 79

10. S&S Transportation; 50

Total; 3,602

Top Industrial Employers in Rantoul 2005

Company; Number of Employees

1. Collins & Aikman; 1,020

2. JELD-WEN; 610

3. Cingular Wireless; 462

4. Meadowbrook Farms; 337

5. Bell/Riddell Sports; 330

6. Eagle Wings Industries; 275

7. Conair; 237

8. Combe Labs; 117

9. Fagerdala USA; 54

10. Lason; 53

Total; 3,495

Source: Village of Rantoul

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