'Community experience plan' has spot on Rantoul's to-do list

RANTOUL — Betty Brennan tells of a time when she was vacationing in Spain. She had some time to kill before meeting friends and asked residents of a town called Granollers what there was to do there.

They told her there wasn't much of anything to do there and recommended she make the 45-minute trip to Barcelona instead.

Undeterred, Brennan set out on her own and began exploring Granollers. She was amazed.

"There were museums, old churches, wonderful places to eat," Brennan said. "I wandered around the place and was in awe."

There was nightlife. There were violinists serenading people as they ate.

"They didn't realize the gems that were surrounding them," Brennan said of the residents.

Many communities are like that, Brennan said, including Rantoul. They can't see the forest for the trees and don't realize what assets their communities have.

Taylor Studios, of which Brennan is president and owner, and the Rantoul Area Chamber of Commerce want to take advantage of Rantoul's assets and let the world know.

Pinpointing and highlighting a sense of identity for Rantoul will be one focus as a "community experience plan" is developed for the village.

The community experience plan is Brennan's brainchild.

"One of the goals is to provide a sense of place for a community, which is really an identity that the community can latch onto and identify with," said Pete Salmon, an interpretive planner at Taylor Studios, which is described on its website as an interpretive planning, design and fabrication firm that assists museums, nature centers, zoos and other clients in creating high-quality exhibits.

Add developing community experience planning to the company's list of offerings.

A community experience plan "looks at the people of the community, the resources of the community, some of the uniqueness of the community," Salmon explains, "and tries to establish what this community has that others don't."

A community experience plan meeting will be held at noon March 15 at Rantoul Business Center. It will be co-hosted by Rantoul Area Chamber of Commerce and Taylor Studios.

"There's a lot of different pieces to it," said Chris Kaler, chamber director. "We're trying to boil it down to one thing we can kind of rally around."

Kaler said he looks at the plan perhaps differently than Taylor Studios might.

"I'm looking at it from the way, maybe we can do some development downtown," he said.

"I want to see improvement of the downtown. I see it as a critical piece of what our community looks like to people who come to visit as well as to the people who live here."

Kaler said if a downtown is "rundown and doesn't look very prosperous," visitors will get the idea that the entire town is that way.

But it won't be just Chamber of Commerce and Taylor Studios officials who will be able to contribute to the discussion at the meeting. Organizers want anyone from the public who might have ideas or who want to improve the community to attend and become involved.

The purpose of the community experience plan is to develop, through discussion, a number of focus areas, including:

— How to improve Rantoul's quality of life.

— Develop the downtown district

— Increase community pride.

— Promote new businesses.

— Promote tourism.

— Create a community "brand."

Salmon said there are several motivations behind Taylor Studios' implementation of the community experience plan.

He said Brennan has become more active in the community, "and as she met more and more people, she realized she wanted to give back in some way. As she was determining how," she developed the company's community experience planning product.

"We're just bringing that to market," Salmon said. "It's a new product line. She thought it would be mutually beneficial to create the plan for Rantoul so we can get the kinks out while still bringing a quality product (to the community). She saw it as a win-win situation."

Brennan said Taylor Studios is writing a community experience plan for Highland, a city in southwestern Illinois.

She said Taylor Studios has been doing something similar in writing interpretative plans for museums and other sites. The community experience plan takes it a step further and focuses on entire communities.

The company wrote a plan for Fort Totten, N.D., which Brennan said "has a long history. We wrote one for the whole fort, gave them a five-year plan of when to add new signage and where it would be added and started working with the tourism group and the Native Americans and state officials.

"It seems like it could easily apply to communities."

The community experience plan will focus on areas for which Rantoul is best known and what it wants to be known for. It will ask if that will bring people into the community.

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