Rantoul officials have worked hard over the years to repurpose the former Chanute Air Force Base into something new. Some of the changes turned out to be unqualified successes. Other attempts were for naught.
RANTOUL — One of the first streets to be renamed following the closure of Chanute Air Force Base was Ameritech Way, honoring the conversion of the old Chanute Weather Center into the new Ameritech Call Center, a cellphone service center that made its home along the street.
Over the years, the Ameritech Call Center became the Cingular Call Center, and the Cingular Call Center in turn became the AT&T Call Center as a result of changes in the cellphone industry.
But village maps still list that street as Ameritech Way.
The changes over two decades to that street are symbolic of Rantoul's development over the two decades since the Air Force packed up its things and left northern Champaign County.
Village officials have worked hard over the years to repurpose a former military-focused complex into something new, converting Rantoul from a military town to a private-sector community.
Some of the changes turned out to be unqualified successes. Other attempts were for naught. And still other changes had unexpected outcomes.
"While the Air Force may no longer be around, its greatest legacy may have been the wonderful people remaining here in Rantoul," former Chanute Commander Maj. Gen. Frank Elliott told The News-Gazette prior to his death in 1997. "We've got a lot of amazing people here who have taken what others perceive as lemons and converted them into delicious lemonade."
The following is a sampling of what Rantoul has done to redevelop the former Chanute Air Force Base and to broaden the community's economic base.
Some things have been successes
Lincoln's Challenge: One of Rantoul's biggest success stories involves not only the repurposing of former base buildings but also the repurposing of young lives. The Illinois National Guard converted a vacant Air Force dormitory into a military-style academy for high school dropouts. Lincoln's Challenge is a program for high school dropouts between the ages of 16 and 18. Students live in a quasi-military environment for 22 weeks while completing an education program geared to helping them finish high school.
Generations of Hope: On the other side of the former base, an award-winning program called Generations of Hope converted military housing into a diverse, inter-generational neighborhood where families and senior citizens support the adopted children. Since 1994, children from foster care have adoptive parents and a permanent home, but also grandparents, playmates and an entire neighborhood designed to help them grow up in a nurturing environment.
ATREL: The Advanced Transportation Research and Engineering Laboratory, located on Titan Drive on the south side of the former base, has three laboratories and high bay areas which provide considerable space for large-scale testing and research. The facility's surrounding acreage provides an expansive area for research on full-scale pavement and rail systems under controlled experimental conditions, and the lab is the home to the Illinois Center for Transportation.
Octave Chanute Aerospace Museum: Part of Grissom Hall on the former base was converted into the largest aerospace museum in Illinois. Occupying 126,000 square feet of display space, the museum showcases the history of Illinois aviation and Chanute Air Force Base. It features displays of military aircraft, uniform displays, trainer cutaways and an underground intercontinental ballistic missile silo.
Prairie Village: Amerinvest, an investment holding and property development and management company, bought more than 1 million square feet of base properties and redeveloped them into five different businesses — one of those being Prairie Village retirement community. The community provides residents with private apartments with many services, activities and amenities.
Jesus is the Way Prison Ministry: Located at the former Jr. Inn motel on U.S. 45 on the northwest side of the former base, the ministry works to rehabilitate former inmates by offering them job skills, a high school equivalence diploma and encouragement to become positive, contributing members of society.
Camp Rantoul: Each August, the Illini football team makes the former military base its training camp. Camp Rantoul gives the players an opportunity to bond and hone their skills apart from possible distractions on campus.
Hap Parker Aquatic Center: Built on the west side of the base, the aquatic center features two water slides, a zero-depth pool, lanes for swimmers and diving boards.
Rantoul industrial park: One of Rantoul's biggest business success stories has been the development of the industrial park west of Interstate 57. Among the companies operating in the park: Combe Laboratories, Jeld-Wen, Conair, Rantoul Foods pork processing plant, Eagle Wings, Charles Industries and Engineered Plastic Components. The Easton-Bell Sports distribution center, now under construction, will be the latest addition.
Some things have only been disappointments
United Airlines: Rantoul was among the nine finalists for a United Airlines aircraft maintenance center, but Indianapolis ultimately landed the center.
Factory outlet mall: The village commissioned Burke, Va., consulting firm Factory Outlet Consultants to study to attract a factory outlet mall to Rantoul, but the mall was never built.
State prison: In 1999, then-Mayor Joe Brown, himself a former Champaign County sheriff, led efforts to bring an $80 million, 1,800-bed state prison to Rantoul. The village proposed leasing 58.6 acres of the former base to the state for $1 per year. But ultimately the village didn't make the cut. "I really think a state prison would have worked here and would have provided lots of good jobs," Brown once told The News-Gazette.
Sivel America: In 1997, the airplane manufacturing company announced plans to hire 200 people to make the SD-27 Corriedale, used by flying schools, and the SD-28 Corriedale, used by aerobatic pilots in air shows, in Hangar Two at the Rantoul airport. But those plans ceased when Sivel America owner Don Chambers had a heart attack.
Training school: A few years later, former Aviation and Economic Development Director Ray Boudreaux announced a proposal to convert the hangar into a training school for airplane mechanics. But the village board was unable to find enough money for the project.
Multipurpose center: In 2002, Boudreaux's successor, Reed Berger, proposed converting the building into a multipurpose center for conventions, exhibitions, conferences, airplane and car shows, and recreation and athletic events. That idea was shot down by the village board, which envisioned the building as an industrial site.
Korean War Museum and Library: Rantoul became the second area community to be disappointed by the Korean War National Museum and Library. After the museum was incorporated in 1997, its first homes were in the Douglas County Museum and later the Tanger Outlet Mall in Tuscola. In 2004, organizers decided to move to a space in Grissom Hall, adjacent to the Octave Chanute Aerospace Museum. And they announced plans to build a permanent museum in Rantoul. In spite of two years of free rent and free utilities from the village, the museum announced it was again relocating, this time to Springfield.
Fanmarker Club: Lawrence and Kenneth Roessler originally acquired the club from the Air Force after the base closed in 1993 and opened it as the Fanmarker Club restaurant. The Roesslers sold the Fanmarker to Rick and Linda Morgan of El Paso in 1999. The Morgans purchased the restaurant with the help of a $250,000 revolving loan from the village and a mortgage from the Bank of Rantoul. On Feb. 1, 2001, the restaurant shut down when the Bank of Rantoul foreclosed, with the Morgans still owing the village $238,000. To recoup its money, the village in April 2001 borrowed $375,000 from reserves to pay the Bank of Rantoul for the deed. Under a contract approved in June 2001, the Campas family of Orland Park agreed to lease the property, then called JN Michaels restaurant, from the village for two years at $2,500 a month. But JN Michaels shut down March 31, 2002.
A few 'wins' even went sour
U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championships: The village outbid Grand Forks, N.D., to become the host for the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championships in 1998, 1999 and 2000. The event, billed as the "Super Bowl of Ballooning," lost some $500,000 the first year, but organizers were able to recoup some of those losses the second year. However, it was decided not to hold an event in Rantoul in 2000. The championships then moved in 2001 to Anderson, S.C.
World Freefall Convention: Undeterred from the experience with hot air balloons, Rantoul went on to host the World Freefall Convention, an event that drew skydivers from around the world from 2002 to 2006. The event was canceled in 2007 and 2008 due to personal reasons by the founder, Don Kirlin. Six people died in accidents during the convention's five-year run.
YSI Chanute Transition Center: In 1997, Maryland-based Youth Services International announced plans to establish a residential academy for troubled youths in a dormitory in south Rantoul, a fenced-in program for teen males referred by the Illinois Department of Corrections. The YSI Chanute Transition Center was initially licensed for 50 beds, and it opened in a former Chanute dormitory in May 1998. The center closed a few years later.
Sometimes 'defeat' has had a silver lining
Farm Progress Show & Half Century of Progress: Rantoul tried unsuccessfully to become one of the two permanent homes for the Farm Progress Show. While Rantoul ultimately lost that effort to Decatur, it led the community to hosting the Half Century of Progress event, held about a week before the Decatur show, which is held biennially. Organizers said this year's event drew more than 100,000 people.
Rantoul Public Library: Sometimes politics got in the way of base redevelopment. When Gov. George Ryan announced the village would receive a $300,000 Illinois FIRST grant to buy the old Chanute bowling alley and convert it into a new library facility, the library board went ahead and completed the project, confident that the money would be on its way. Then when Gov. Rod Blagojevich took office, he halted payment of the grant money, leaving the library holding the bill. The library board persuaded the village board to fund a no-interest "short-term" loan until the state money arrived. When the state money never arrived, the village wrote off the loan. In spite of the financial snafu, village residents got a new library facility.