Part one of a five-part series
By BRENDAN QUEALY
For the Rantoul Press
RANTOUL — Traumatic. Devastating. Eerie. As if a family member had died.
That is how many of Rantoul's residents described the feeling within the town after the Chanute Air Force Base closed 20 years ago on Sept. 30, 1993.
"There was a philosophy that Chanute would always be here, and no one ever believed that it would be closed," current Mayor Chuck Smith said. "And when it did, it was like rats abandoning a sinking ship. I mean everybody left. The military stores. The pawn shops. Housing went down. Values dropped. It was just an economic and chaotic mess that we had to clean up."
Two decades have passed, and the cleanup is still in progress.
At the time of the closure, Rantoul lost more than half of its population and with it more than $100 million in commercial spending.
Smith said losing Chanute after 76 years was the "biggest thing to happen in the history of this community" and wonders if any economy can overcome that level of loss.
"We have still not fully recovered, and it will take a lot to bring the economy back to where it was," Smith said. "I'm not sure we may ever reach that. I'm hopeful of that, and I am working towards that goal of getting us back to where we once were."
Before 1993, businesses were thriving with a built-in customer base, local schools were receiving federal aid, the military presence provided a sense of safety and discipline, and new industries saw Rantoul as an attractive home for their future ventures.
"Rantoul was a very forward-looking community," said Katy Podagrosi, who served as mayor from 1984-1996. "We had good success, and we had worked very hard to establish Rantoul as a destination."
However, 20 years after the closing of Chanute, Rantoul is dealing with poverty, a bad housing market, underused infrastructure and a poor reputation around central Illinois.
"I haven't heard a good thing about Rantoul in such a long time," lifelong resident Mel Zech said. "And not to say there is not good in Rantoul, but the bad travels faster than the good — and right now that is all people are hearing about from Rantoul."
The mayor's office is not deaf to the negativity being said about Rantoul either, and Smith knows a strong community will exist only if the citizens are pulling in the same direction and can see the benefits of their town.
"It's a known fact that we have been our worst enemy over the last couple of decades," Smith said. "We need to speak well of Rantoul if we are going to change that perception — because we have an exceptional community here."
Of course, speaking well of Rantoul will not cure all that currently ails the village.
"We are going to have to (find success) in a different way," Smith said. "We had all of our eggs in one basket here (with the Air Force), and there was really no incentive to go out and try and build up."
'A very different community'
State Sen. Mike Frerichs was born and raised in Gifford, an even smaller town east of Rantoul. He attended Rantoul Township High School and still visits friends and family in town frequently. Frerichs knows Rantoul is not what it used to be.
"Rantoul is a very different community today," he said. "But all communities change over time. You see it in Danville and Decatur, where they have lost major employers — and it just depends on how you respond to those challenges."
One of those challenges has been the coexistence of the three predominant demographics within Rantoul.
According to the 1990 U.S. Census, the town population of Rantoul (not including those stationed at Chanute) was 17,212. A total of 14,065 residents (81.7 percent) identified themselves as white, 2,018 residents (11.7 percent) African-American, and 863 (5.0 percent) Hispanic.
That compares with the 2010 U.S. Census population of 12,941 — 8,597 white residents (66.4 percent), 2,940 African-Americans (22.7 percent), and 1,252 (9.7 percent) Hispanics.
The change in the population demographics was due in part to black people seeking cheaper housing in safer areas away from Chicago and other cities. According to a 1997 News-Gazette story about Rantoul's changing demographics, the end of Chanute left a surplus of housing at relatively low rents.
"This huge influx of poor people who used to live in the projects (in Chicago) are going to available cheap housing in Kankakee, Decatur, Bloomington, Danville, South Bend, Gary, Terre Haute and Rantoul," then-Village Administrator David Johnston told The News-Gazette.
Rantoul was also seeing an increase in the Hispanic population. Although the presence of migrant workers was nothing new, those families were now putting down roots in Rantoul. Former Mayor Podagrosi attributes that to the opening of Rantoul Foods, which provided steady jobs for the community and brought more people into the town.
"The town had just about disappeared, and we tried to bring in other families and make this a family village again," said Jerry "Wrongway" Johnson, a community activist and president of the Hot Rods & Hooligans motor club. "Rantoul is kind of like a melting pot now, and I think that has been good for the community."
Meshing three communities
Not every resident, however, saw the influx of "outsiders" the same way.
"In the beginning, a lot of the people in town didn't accept it," Johnson said. "They fought it because change is not easy to accept. But throughout the years, these new people have helped make Rantoul what it is by bringing new business to the village, bringing in new ideas and bringing in families — even if they are a little different from what we had."
Yet Smith admits these new families are still struggling to assimilate and become part of the community.
"We are trying to mesh those three communities together now more than ever before," Smith said.
"When it first started, we were caught off guard. But now we are finding ways of coming together to look at common issues we have: safety, welfare, education. And now we are hoping to influence them to become more of a solid core of the community."
Martha Gonzalez and the staff at the Multicultural Community Center of Rantoul, which resides in the old clubhouse from the Air Force base golf course, has been instrumental in making that happen.
"For a lot of migrant worker families, it has been very difficult," Gonzalez said. "But our purpose here is to help those families and to help everybody else come together."
Gonzalez said future meetings are set with village officials to begin work on programs that will help connect the Hispanic population of Rantoul with the rest of the town.
"We are here to help everybody," Gonzalez said. "As long as the community can receive the services they need, that is my only concern."
And those are the services of which many Rantoul residents are in dire need.
"We have seen a tremendous upswing in people that are in-need in Rantoul and a downswing in donations," said Bonnie Specchio, the fundraising coordinator for Church Women United. "That increase is something that is really troubling."
Specchio, along with the Rev. Linda Trowbridge and others from Bethany Park Christian Church, organized the Back to School Days event at the church where nearly $10,000 worth of school supplies and clothing were given away to 350 of Rantoul's underprivileged children this year. That figure does not include the vaccinations, physical and dental examinations, haircuts and other services that were donated by organizations throughout central Illinois.
"Because low-income housing was being offered in Rantoul, we had this influx of people who put a heavy drain on the social services at the same time we lost the services from the base," Specchio said.
Housing market hurdles
The housing market in Rantoul has had a difficult time bouncing back as well. According to Smith, when Chanute was closed, infrastructure was left in place that could be readily used for rentals. However, the increased element of renters has hurt the village's economy.
"We would prefer people come into Rantoul, buy houses and settle here," Smith said. "A solid core of homeowners stabilizes the community, the schools and the economic base."
The most recent numbers have 49.3 percent of Rantoul properties as rentals. With nearly half of the community in flux, Rantoul has found it difficult to expand and build new housing because the demand simply is not there.
"We're seeing it throughout the neighborhoods," Smith said. "People have their properties, and they're maintaining them, but they are not doing anything to bring them up. And Rantoul has been in that circumstance for some time now."
In the last 15 years, only 84 permits have been filed to build new single-family homes in Rantoul. Compared with surrounding communities, Rantoul is far behind the pace.
Because of this lack of expansion, there has been little tax revenue growth to improve the infrastructure already in place in Rantoul. That, combined with the lack of discretionary income from residents, has spelled bad news for business owners in downtown Rantoul.
Take a drive through downtown Rantoul, and it is difficult to believe that it was once the "hopping" place residents described.
"You could go downtown on a Friday or Saturday night and this main street was packed with 'Zoom Zooms' or 'Zoomies.' That's what we called the airmen," Johnson said. "When they picked up and moved, things around this town just dropped."
Today, downtown has become like a revolving door. Businesses come in and out — and many of the established shops are no longer there.
"When Deena's closed up shop and Jill (Alred) sold her place, I didn't sleep for two weeks," said Paula Hopkins, owner of House Of Flowers. "I am disappointed in the lack of money that has been put into the downtown, and if we don't get some help soon, I don't think I'll be able to be here in a few years."
However, the recent openings of Sammer's Bar & Grill and Java Connection have given some hope of a turnaround.
"Thank God for Java Connection, and God bless Mark Keyes and the United Methodist Church for putting all of that money into a downtown that has deteriorated so much," Hopkins said. "But we need help. I know Chuck Smith is doing what he can, but we need everybody to step up."
Smith said the opening of Java Connection signaled "a new attitude of business in Rantoul."
"We need to revitalize the business community in Rantoul as a whole," said Smith, who is creating a group to help accomplish that goal.
The group "will be comprised of business people and private citizens giving their input about the type of community they would like to see, how they envision this community, and what the plans would be to attract the type of businesses we want to this community," Smith said.
Rantoul's road ahead
The village has already landed a facility that will provide a big boost to Rantoul's economy. The 815,000-square-foot facility for Easton-Bell, a sports equipment manufacturer, is nearing completion on the west side of Interstate 57 and, according to Smith, will bring more jobs to the area.
"Things are finally starting to turn," Smith said. "We have a lot of attractions, and there are a lot of outside companies with interest in Rantoul and the influence that Rantoul can bring to them."
Rantoul has already experienced some success in the rebuilding efforts during the last 20 years. Aside from the Multicultural Community Center, Air Force base infrastructure has been used for the AT&T Call Center, JB Trucking, the Octave Chanute Aerospace Museum, Prairie Village, the Rantoul Theatre Group, Little Wings, Youth Center, Rantoul Public Library, the Rantoul Business Incubator, Generations of Hope and Lincoln's Challenge Academy, to name a few. But there is still a wealth of property that is underused.
"We are in the building stages," Smith said. "People need a reason to come to any community. They need a destination. We want to become the destination for people with investment dollars. For families to settle down. When we can do that, we'll see Rantoul begin to live up to the potential that it has."
At a June village board meeting, Mike Royse of the Center for Community Adaptation gave an update about the Rantoul Re-Imagination Project that began in 2009. The goal of the project is to help Rantoul discover what it has to offer and what the role of the town will be in the central Illinois region.
Royse sees the closed-down Chanute Air Force Base as an "underutilized asset" and believes his different brand of thinking can help restructure and reuse that land as a way to bring Rantoul to its full potential.
Royse believes Rantoul can become the energy district for low-cost renewables and self-reliance through applied research. He also sees Rantoul as a "food hub that can act as an agricultural incubator by expanding the market for fresh local foods — using the land as teaching farms and supporting bio-energy research."
Other goals of the project include building a regional culture center and taking advantage of the diverse communities around Rantoul.
Royse hopes Rantoul can become a regional tourism hub where businesses hold conferences and expos. He also hopes a possible data and broadband center will attract these businesses and therefore turn Rantoul into a "manufacturing innovation and research hub."
"This will help support regional entrepreneurship and develop our future workforce," Royse said. "The key thing is that this can position Rantoul to become the 'jewel of the region' and puts us in a place to do what no other city can."
Smith is encouraged by the increased interest in Rantoul and is optimistic about the town's future.
"I have seen the good times in Rantoul. I have lived through the hard times in Rantoul," Smith said. "I can tell you right now, the vision this community has for the future is pristine — and we have the infrastructure to support it."
Some residents share Smith's optimism for the future.
"The people in Rantoul are diehards. They're not going to give up on their village because we'll grind it out no matter how long it takes," Johnson said. "I would like to go downtown on a Friday evening and see it busy. I would like to see the community more community-based. I'd like to see it like the Yellow Brick Road — where Rantoul is everybody's home."
Brendan Quealy received his master's degree in journalism from the University of Illinois in 2011. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Chanute Aftermath: A five-part series
The Rantoul Press and The News-Gazette are publishing a series of articles about the former Chanute Air Force Base, which closed 20 years ago.
Oct. 6: How has Rantoul fared?
Oct. 13: Married to the Air Force
Oct. 20: Chanute and Rantoul's schools
Oct. 27: Putting down roots
Nov. 3: What needs to be done?
Total 17,212 12,941
White 14,065 8,597
Black 2,018 2,940
Hispanic 863 1,252
Source: U.S. Census
Share your Chanute-related story
Chanute Air Force Base brought thousands of servicemen, civilians and their families to East Central Illinois. Many of those people stayed in Rantoul, and others moved back after retirement, not just in Rantoul but to other nearby towns as well.
If the former base is part of the reason you put down roots in East Central Illinois, the Rantoul Press would like to hear your story, for possible publication.
Please email your story — 500 words or less — to firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail it to 1332 E. Harmon Drive, Rantoul, IL 61866, or just bring it to the office. For questions, please call 217-892-9613.