RANTOUL — Left for dead a little more than a year ago, the patient is showing signs of life.
Chanute Air Museum is healthier as it heads into a new year. But looming is the still-unanswered question of whether it will continue to call Grissom Hall home.
"The doors are still open, and a little over a year ago nobody thought they would be open at this time," said Nancy Kobel, president of the museum's board of directors. "We must be doing something right."
She said the museum is "definitely in a better financial place."
"That doesn't mean we're out of the woods," she said. "When this board took over in August 2010, we barely had half a month's payroll in the bank.
"Now we have payroll through the end of January in the bank."
The museum, in a cost-cutting move, had been closed on Sundays last winter, which is a traditionally slow time. Kobel said last year that weekend payroll amounted to 40 to 45 percent of the museum's total payroll.
Because of the improved financial outlook, however, the museum is remaining open during the weekends this winter, although it closes early, at 4 p.m.
The reason for the improvement: In part, it was because the museum board became active in promoting the museum, located on the former Air Force base.
"We really took some time last spring and we went out; we tried to get the name of the museum out there and tried to let them know we were open," Kobel said.
They spoke with owners of local motels, hotels and restaurants, took them brochures and sent letters to local organizations such as VFW, American Legion and AMVETS posts and other civic organizations.
They mailed letters with brochures encouraging tours, letting recipients know what services the museum offers.
They have also worked with schools, and some have responded with tours, although the schools are operating with tight budgets. Several fifth-grade classes from Champaign schools toured the museum.
"We had a number of (other) tour groups over the summer," said Kobel. "Robyn (York, administrative assistant) has done a great job of getting some tour groups in here."
Several companies also rented the museum for events such as employee recognition gatherings.
The board also had an exhibit at the Champaign County Fair, which about 1,000 went through. Visitors to the exhibit also received half-price coupons. The exhibit consisted of a walk-in trailer that contained a number of air museum displays, posters and a video.
"That helped us out, and it helped the fairgrounds," Kobel said. "We got a lot of feedback that they were glad to see an exhibit."
The board also manned one of the main gates at the Half Century of Progress farm show in Rantoul during the summer, which raised $400 for the museum. The event was not only a fundraiser, it got the name of the museum out before the public.
During the farm show, the board displayed a sign at the back gate of the museum donated by Jim Wagner of Signs & Graphics, St. Joseph, that trumpeted the museum.
"That entire weekend we had a lot of people come and visit the museum," Kobel said.
The board also hired a local contractor to inspect the facility and determine how to make the building, which features a large airplane hangar, more energy-efficient. Board members must weigh whether they want to keep the facility, which is owned by the village of Rantoul, open or find a new home.
Village officials said they intend to close the building, which also houses Rantoul Theatre Group and classes for Lincoln's Challenge Academy, when Lincoln's Challenge's new campus is completed.
Could one option be to continue to lease the building from the village while the museum takes over maintenance? All options are being studied, Kobel said.
Renovating the museum property would cost about $1 million, Kobel said.
"And that's just the starting point," said Kobel.
But if the museum board wants to keep the museum open, it might be cheaper to stay where it is than to find a new home.
"When you look at stuff like the cost of moving planes (and) the cost of moving exhibits, (finding a new home might be too expensive)," Kobel said. "Yes, this building needs some repair work," she said, adding that the board continues to keep village officials "in that loop and have conversations with them so they know what we're thinking and we know what they're thinking."
Part of the trouble, said the board president, is that there are so many unknowns.
"Unknowns such as deadlines, funding, the economy," Kobel said. "One of the things that I'm very pleased about, in order to apply for certain grants you have to show 12 to 18 months of financial stability. We're just now coming up on a year and can say we've been able to pay our bills and we can apply for grants."
"We've come a long way. We still have a long way to go."