Easton-Bell expansion groundbreaking has workforce feeling 'blessed'

RANTOUL — Teri Crapse said her department is anticipating some more elbow room.

And windows.

Donna Flood looks forward to construction of a facility that will feature "advanced and modernized technology."

Frank Ball said he and his co-workers are "blessed" to continue to work in the jobs they enjoy.

Those were three of the reactions following Tuesday afternoon's groundbreaking for the 815,000-square-foot Easton-Bell Sports distribution, assembly and shared services center.

With more than 300 people on hand, many of them Easton-Bell employees, the earth was turned with eight gold-colored shovels at a site bordered on three sides by corn fields.

The center will be built just off Evans Road along U.S. 136, across the street from the Jeld-Wen plant in Rantoul's industrial park. Easton-Bell employs 300 people at facilities east of Rantoul and in hangar 1 on the former Chanute Air Force Base. All of those employees will be retained.

Flood, who is the company's chief operating officer, said construction is expected to begin "in the next couple of weeks" with a November target for completion of the shell and late 2013 for final project completion.

Flood credited cooperation by village and state officials for getting the project approved.

The state's targeted investment package, which is estimated at $3.4 million, includes Economic Development for a Growing Economy tax credits, which are based on jobs and distributed over 10 years, and a training grant through the Employer Training Investment Program. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity will administer the package.

Rantoul has taken several steps to lure the facility, among them adoption of an enterprise zone that will add 163 acres to its map; being in the enterprise zone will exempt the company from any sales tax on all building materials that will be used in the facility.

Crapse, who has been with the company for 32 years, all in the customer services department, said she has seen things change dramatically over the years. When she was hired in May 1980, there were five people employed in customer services. She saw that number dip to one — her — as the economy stumbled later in the 1980s, until today when 21 are employed in the department.

Customer services employees now work at the company's facility in hangar 1.

"We're all excited and thrilled" about the new center, Crapse said. "We're in pretty tight quarters. I know (co-workers are) looking forward to a nice, new office building with some windows. That's been one of our jokes that maybe we'll get some windows."

Ball, a painter of professional football helmets for Riddell, which is owned by Easton-Bell, has been with the company for 10 years.

He said workers didn't know what was going to happen when they were called to an all-staff meeting several months ago. When it was announced that a new plant would be built, "we were blessed," he said. "It was a celebration. You would've thought you were at the Super Bowl game."

Flood, who served as master of ceremonies for Tuesday's event, said the process "has been two years in the making" and involved "an endless amount of hours looking at site selection, architect's plans, talking with local and state officials and getting their approval for the project as well as getting approval from our board and CEO."

David Vaught, acting director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Development, represented the state at the ceremony. (Gov. Pat Quinn, originally scheduled to attend, was not present.)

Vaught read a statement by Quinn proclaiming Aug. 12 "Easton-Bell Day in Illinois."

State Rep. Chad Hays, R-Catlin, said the company had 50 site options for locating the facility.

"The competition was fierce. It's only because of you that this new project is going to be located right here," Hays said to the employees.

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