Commercial construction projects and Air Force cooperation in cleaning up the former Chanute are reasons for optimism.
RANTOUL — When Bruce Sandahl was hired as village administrator in 2008, he assumed a lot had been done to clean up the former Chanute Air Force Base, which was closed in 1993.
"Unfortunately, what I found was very little had been done," he said. "There wasn't anyone really pushing the Air Force to get that property cleaned up or property transferred."
Sandahl had a lot of work to do, contacts to be made, records to be sifted through. What he found was a $68 million liability, something he knew wasn't going to fit into Rantoul's $7 million annual budget.
"Our only approach was that we'd have to declare bankruptcy, and that would mean the Air Force would get the property back, and then they'd have to deal with it," Sandahl said.
But the Air Force didn't want it back and suddenly was cooperating.
The prime example of that new cooperation is White Hall, one of the largest military structures ever built. The Air Force is committed to a 36-month process to raze the massive white elephant, at a cost of $12 million. And Air Force officials have also "recognized their obligations" to clean up the toxic leftovers on the former base. That responsibility covers soil, water and structures.
A new optimism
The optimism of village leaders today was hard to come by in past years. Back then, Rantoul didn't have many friends. Even residents were bad-mouthing the community, and there was no cooperation with leaders in Champaign County, the University of Illinois, Parkland College, the state or economic development. Although Rantoul had been the second-largest employer in the county, the village was being ignored as a good place to live, work and do business.
"When the base was here, we didn't need help," Sandahl said. "Unfortunately, in the early days (after the base closed), there were no rules, no guidance. The village was at a disadvantage in knowing what to do, how to do it and who to contact."
Lifelong resident Chris Kaler said it took the community a while to realize that the military wasn't coming back.
"Rantoul was in denial when the base closed," said Kaler, former executive director of the Rantoul Chamber of Commerce.
Sandahl, who was plant manager at Rantoul Products from 1984-1995, attributed Rantoul's slow response to a mindset that the village and the base were separate entities.
"We had to really open up our minds and think how Rantoul and Chanute would become one village," the village administrator said.
Sandahl said in making Rantoul a greater community, he had to look at the strengths of Champaign County and, especially, its largest asset — the University of Illinois.
"I am amazed at the amount of people at the UI interested in helping Rantoul," Sandahl said.
Since 2008, he has persuaded the Champaign County Economic Development Corp. and Regional Planning Commission to take a second look at Rantoul.
Sandahl said his goal was to do everything possible to turn the village from a liability into an asset.
"I realized we had to instill pride in our community before we can sell it to someone else," he said. "We had to convince Rantoul residents they had something special here."
So while Sandahl was dealing with the Air Force about finding funding to clean up property on the base, he started a campaign to clean up Rantoul — asking residents to take pride in their properties, and the village to acquire and tear down blighted buildings and housing units everywhere they could.
"We definitely had hit rock bottom and now we're on our way back up," he said.
Mayor Chuck Smith said he and Sandahl are focused on creating a better Rantoul.
"He's been the catalyst," Smith said. "I am very proud of what Bruce has accomplished."
This past year, the community landed the construction of an 815,000-square-foot plant in its west-side industrial park along Interstate 57 for Easton-Bell, a sports gear company. By consolidating its longtime operations in other parts of town, Easton-Bell is making a long-term commitment to Rantoul.
The village has also seen commercial business development in the past five-plus years, beginning with Walgreens coming to town and Wal-Mart moving its facility from the east side of town to the west end near Interstate 57 and building a super center.
Other construction is coming near Wal-Mart. Developer Joe Warner has put together a plan with the village that includes a new Holiday Inn Express, restaurants and strip shopping areas. Businesses are expected to be opening next spring.
Despite obvious vacant storefronts, downtown got a boost when Java Connection opened this year, and Lindsey Lane Bridal was relocated downtown to the former Busey Bank building.
Along U.S. 136, Rantoul-based Taylor Studios bought the former Wal-Mart building for its artists to create museum pieces, sculptures and more. County Market bought the former IGA and remodeled the store along with adding an Ace Hardware. Nearby, a new Dollar Tree opened as well as O'Reilly Auto Parts. Twin Lakes senior villas was also developed. The Dairy Queen remodeled, and a new laundromat/dry-cleaning facility located next door.
Down the street, a car wash was remodeled and in the shopping area on the east end of town next to Rural King came two new restaurants, El Toro and Family Table, along with a new and used furniture store, This Is It.
More work ahead
Sandahl said while other communities have seen commercial changes in the past decade, Rantoul has been underdeveloped from a retail standpoint, noting that's one of the reasons the village has become "very attractive" to business. He said there is definitely a renewed business interest in Rantoul because "we started to look like we care."
Chamber Executive Director Mandy Briggs agrees.
"We need to continue to attract business and bring jobs to town," Briggs said. "If we can retain the families that already live here and get those people to shop here, things start to happen. It creates more opportunity for people to work in Rantoul."
Sandahl said another task for the village is to get those people employed in town to live in Rantoul.
"This town would be phenomenal if we could do that," he said. He estimated about 60 percent of the work force comes from out of town.
Sandahl said part of the problem Rantoul has experienced in the past decade is all the excess rental property, something that likely won't change overnight.
He said 52 percent of housing units are occupied by renters in the community, a figure he said should be at about 30 percent.
Real-estate broker Gary Crane agreed Rantoul is a changed town. When the base was open, he said, Rantoul had one of the best school systems anywhere, but that image changed when the base closed.
"The challenge is to overcome that perception," Crane said.
He said the village is on the right track by eliminating low-income housing and decaying buildings.
"This town looks better today than it's looked in years," he said.
From Oct. 24, 2011, to a year later, Rantoul saw 77 homes sell. During that same period this year, 108 have sold.
"That's the first time that's happened in the last 20 years," Crane said of the increase, noting he has been in business since 1975.
Redeveloping the former base remains an ongoing project. Sandahl said there has been talk of turning one of Chanute's giant airport hangars into an expo center, but the village is open to companies seeking warehouse space or a light-manufacturing site.
Another asset to the base has been the Lincoln's Challenge Academy, which will be constructing a new $38 million facility by June of 2016, including razing a number of buildings they currently use.
"All of a sudden, it changes the total landscape," Sandahl said.
There is also a plan by Ian Wang, owner of Prairie Village Retirement Community, to create a nearby cultural center/park area at a cost of up to $2 million.
Sandahl said the area is also well set up for data centers with fiber optics, electric power grid and other high-tech connections.
"Everything's here," Sandahl said. "We don't have to rebuild anything."
They would join an AT&T data center that has existed on the campus since the mid-1990s.
One possible new use for Chanute is farming. The old base has plenty of open land — something the village now has to mow. Sandahl is working with the University of Illinois, Champaign County Farm Bureau, Parkland College, the Center for Community Adaptation and the USDA to make Rantoul a regional food hub, growing vegetables in those small plots that could be harvested for resale.
He said FFA students from Rantoul Township High School grew two crops this past year — sweet corn and watermelons.
"We've turned unproductive ground now into farm ground," Sandahl said.
He pointed out that farmland is extremely valuable, and being able to put small crops in areas like the base can help fill a void.
Smith, the village mayor, is asking for public input for a Rantoul Economic Development Association meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at Village Hall to talk about economic development plans for the community. He said public input is welcomed.
He said Betty Brennan, president of Taylor Studios, will also be at the meeting to talk about the Community Experience Plan put together for the village.
"We're looking to make Rantoul an asset for Champaign County as it once was," Sandahl said.