A regional ripple effect from Chanute closure
Thomasboro Mayor Bradley Morris remembers a time when his community was growing.
"It seemed like every three, four years they were putting in a new street," Morris said.
And then Chanute Air Force Base closed. It was Sept. 30, 1993, and the growth went the other way.
Thomasboro, which is 2 miles south of the old base and was home to a number of civilian employees and some military, has shrunk since then. In 1990, census figures showed a population of 1,250 in Thomasboro. That number fell about 10 percent to 1,126 in the 2010 census.
Like Thomasboro, Ludlow, about 4 miles north of Rantoul, was hit hard by the base's closure. But it was a different sort of change. With a population of 371 in 2010, Ludlow has actually grown nearly 15 percent from the 323 residents who lived there in 1990. The difference has been in the makeup of the town. And it hasn't been for the better, Mayor Pete Walker said.
But not every small town near Rantoul has seen its fortunes decline since Chanute's closure. Nearby Gifford, to the east, and Fisher, to the west, have actually seen their communities prosper. Any number of factors could be the reason — school district, locale, agricultural base, infrastructure or perception.
Business loss in Thomasboro
Thomasboro hasn't been hit as hard as Ludlow, but it has been affected.
"You had a lot more of the people who were stationed out on base living here," Morris said of pre-closure life.
He saw the growth up close and maybe watched it with more interest than most because his grandfather, John Schluter, had a big hand in it. Schluter developed the Schluter subdivision in Thomasboro.
Morris even has a street named after him, Morris Street. He said his grandfather named many of the streets for family members.
"In 1962, the street I live on now, Park Street, was just a cul-de-sac," Morris said. "There wasn't anything between the railroad tracks and where I'm at."
That changed because Schluter knew there was a future in the housing market with Chanute open. Many of those homes are now occupied by others, but there has been little new home construction in Thomasboro in recent years.
Business has also suffered.
"Looking way, way back, (old-timers) can tell you stories" about two after-hours bars, one in Thomasboro and another nearby that catered to Chanute airmen.
They are long gone.
The village's two most prominent businesses are Altamont, which makes pistol grips and knife grips, and the grain elevator.
Gone are many of the downtown businesses.
"We don't have a restaurant anymore," Morris said. "It closed down a year or so ago. Just a tavern and Thomasboro Improvement Association (building), a grocery store and the dry cleaners."
He remembers a different scenario growing up, when the downtown also had a hardware store and a lumber yard, and the town had a gas station.
Ludlow's transient population
Ludlow Mayor Pete Walker is a fifth-generation resident of the community, which has likely been hit the hardest of any of the small towns around Rantoul.
It pains him to see the impact Chanute's closure has made on the town.
"Housing was really hurt big time," Walker said. "It was kind of a bedroom community for the military. They'd buy a house in Ludlow. It hurt the schools and (having) just a good, solid base of people."
Walker estimated 35 percent of the population was military; now maybe 10 percent are military retirees, at the most.
Walker said student enrollment at Ludlow Grade School has declined about 30 percent.
But the school has experienced an upswing in attendance — at least this year. With 111 total, the school has 35 more pupils than it did last year.
Superintendent Dru Lobmaster attributes the larger number to more people moving into town as they see the benefits of smaller class sizes. She also cites higher migrant-student numbers.
While the town's population has actually increased, Walker said, Ludlow has more transient low-income people who rent homes now. The community also has "more drugs and crime because of the low-income" populace, he said.
"It seemed like when the military was (here), people had more pride in taking care of their homes. The old mayor, Gillis, was retired military. He kept his house immaculate," Walker said. "Somebody bought it, and it went into foreclosure, and they just had junk all around it."
Chanute's closure hurt Ludlow "big time," the mayor said.
"People will be upset if I say this: There was a better population of people there. We had more people to choose from for our town board, ... for our school board. We just had more dollars in Ludlow."
While Gifford and Fisher have seen new subdivisions grow, development of a subdivision in Ludlow foundered.
Bill Hewerdine "spent about $250,000 of his own dollars and built that lake and had it subdivided, put water lines and streets in, and it just didn't go."
Only three homes were ever built there.
"He took 20 acres of farm ground out of production," Walker said. "Now the lots are being baled for hay because nobody's bought or nobody's built in them."
But Hewerdine hasn't lost faith in Ludlow. Walker said Hewerdine has bought foreclosed homes in Ludlow, renovated them and has people living there.
"He's still putting his money in Ludlow," Walker said.
Gifford found growth
Gifford's population has gone up, although like all communities, new-home growth fell in recent years because of the economy, according to Maynard Duitsman.
Duitsman, village treasurer, was born 69 years ago 2 miles west of Gifford, itself about 5 miles east of Rantoul. The community had a number of people stationed at or working at Chanute, but that number has been replaced and surpassed in the 20 years since the base closure. The population began to climb when a group of investors spearheaded by Eldon Hesterberg developed Northpoint Subdivision.
"With Northpoint, a lot of young people moved into town," Duitsman said. "A lot of people take their (children to day care at the Lutheran church). A lot of the farmers when they retire, they move into town."
Gifford's population declined from 845 in 1990 to 838 in 2000, but the town saw a mini-boom over the following 10 years, according to census statistics. By 2010, the population had grown to 975, 15 percent larger than 20 years earlier.
"One benefit is, Gifford has a sewer system, which is something not all small towns its size can claim," Duitsman said. "That really helped when we put (that) in 35-40 years ago."
Duitsman said that instead of working at Chanute, many residents now work at the University of Illinois, Easton-Bell in Rantoul or Kraft Foods in Champaign.
The town's grade school has a good reputation, Gifford Health and Rehab has been renovated and expanded, and the village board has upgraded the village park.
"The sales tax has been real good," Duitsman said. "We have excellent churches, Methodist and Lutheran.
"For its size, it's doing really well."
Fisher has shown the strongest growth since Chanute closed.
Since 1990, when there were 1,526 living in the town, its population has climbed to 1,647 in 2000 and 1,811 in 2010.
Mayor Milt Kelly said the town, which is about twice the distance (about 8 miles) from Rantoul as Ludlow, Gifford and Thomasboro, was affected by Chanute's closure but managed to overcome it and thrive.
Like all area communities, Fisher relies heavily on agriculture. Kelly sees it first hand.
Fisher was affected by the base closure, but "we didn't have so much of the transient population that Rantoul had, for example. It was more stable."
One major effect was the loss of federal impact aid. A former educator, Kelly said he remembers during salary negotiations, "one of the big problems the school board had was facing ... the loss of federal impact aid.
"We had a lot of people in Fisher who worked at the base. We had lots of kids who were what we called 'federally connected.'"
Their parents were either military or civil service on base.
But the school district rose to the occasion. The school system is one thing that is cited for the community's growth.
"Over the long haul we've grown," Kelly said. "I don't think I ever saw a decline in population. I think we just saw a little less rapid growth for a period of time."
Gaylon Reeves, a former member of the Fisher Village Board, is also a former Air Force captain at Chanute — a military veteran of 21 years, including 18 in the Air Force and three in the Army. He and his family returned to Fisher after he received a special-duty assignment to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. They returned, he said, because "my children were so young, they remembered the Chanute area as home."
Reeves' wife, Sherry, was a civilian employee at the base who got a new job a year before the base closed.
Gaylon Reeves said he didn't think the base closure affected many Fisher residents, but the closure bothered him because "I thought of the military as my home. ... It seemed like they pulled the rug out from under me."
Reeves missed the military environment and the camaraderie.
He doesn't believe many Fisher residents gave the closure much thought.
"I don't think a lot of (Fisher residents) worked on base," he said. "There were a few retirees who lived in Fisher. They used the commissary, the hospital and the base exchange."