Funds shortage could force Chanute museum to close
RANTOUL – Chanute Air Museum President Jim Eldridge says he is excited about a new exhibit about the dream of flight, scheduled to open on April 5.
He just hopes the museum has enough money to pay its bills until that date.
The museum board mailed letters to its 327 members last week, appealing for $24,000 in emergency donations to help the facility to pay its bills and keep its doors open through the end of March.
The board also made an appeal to museum visitors on its Web site, www.aeromuseum.org, asking for contributions.
"We're in a financial crisis," Eldridge said on Monday. "If we don't get some money, we're going to have to look at closing our doors."
Financial problems are nothing new for the museum, which was previously known as the Octave Chanute Aerospace Museum.
The village of Rantoul has been subsidizing the museum for more than a decade by paying for its utilities.
According to Rantoul Village Comptroller Scot Brandon, the village spends $120,000 a year for the museum's utilities.
In addition, the museum receives $38,000 a year from Rantoul's hotel-motel taxes, Brandon said.
"We wouldn't have made it this far without the help of the village," said Museum Treasurer Allan Hall.
Eldridge traces the current financial woes to the museum's inability to get grant money from the Illinois Department of Tourism.
According to Eldridge, last year the museum applied for a $35,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Tourism to pay for billboards and other advertising for the museum's air show, which was held in August.
Eldridge said the museum expected the air show to draw more than 10,000 visitors to the museum that weekend, bringing in money to operate the museum for the coming year.
"We were told we were going to get the $35,000 grant, so we went ahead and spent the money," Eldridge said.
But sweltering heat – temperatures above 100 degrees both days – produced paid attendance of 3,700 people, according to museum records.
Instead of a profit, the museum was left looking for ways to recoup the $35,000 it thought it was getting from the state.
"We had to pay for a lot of the air show bills out of our operating cash," Eldridge said.
Eldridge said the state ended up denying the grant, but Emma Douglas, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Tourism, doesn't remember it that way.
"There was not a denial of the grant," Douglas told The News-Gazette. "Rather, the museum is withdrawing their submission for the August 2007 event so that (the department) can consider the 2008 event, which takes place in June. The decisions are pending."
Eldridge said the museum never withdrew its grant application.
"They asked us about sending in a withdrawal, but we never did it," Eldridge said. "They are holding us hostage. We have to send them a withdrawal letter before we get considered for a 2008 grant."
In an effort to save the museum from closing, Executive Director Hal Loebach has worked for the last four months without taking a salary, Eldridge said.
The museum has four other paid employees, Eldridge said.
"The main problem is that winter is a bad time for us," Eldridge said. "Since November, our admissions have been practically zilch, so our reserves are pretty well depleted."
Meanwhile, museum board member and Chanute historian Don Weckhorst said he is worried about the condition of the museum's building.
"The roof leaks, and the conditions are getting progressively worse," Weckhorst said.
Contributions may be sent to the Chanute Air Museum, 1011 Pacesetter Drive, Rantoul, IL 61866. Checks may be made out to the Octave Chanute Aerospace Heritage Foundation.