Living the Good Life After Base Closure
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
RANTOUL, Ill., Apr. 16, 1999 "It's a combination of good planning, a singular purpose and just plain hard work," was how Ray M. Boudreaux described the success of this city in attracting business to what was Chanute Air Force Base.
Boudreaux, director of aviation and development of this small city, said Rantoul has nearly as many civilian jobs now as it did when the 1989 Base Realignment and Closure Commission gave Chanute the signal to close. That achievement didn't come easily.
"The city went through some bad times, but we've come through," he said.
Plenty of Rantoul residents are still bitter about Chanute's closure. They'll freely catalog the reasons the decision was unfair or unwise, even as they tout their success. With the possibility of more base closures in fiscal 2001 and 2005, the lessons the people of Rantoul learned could be important to other communities around military installations.
For instance, Rantoul fought hard to prevent the closure but also had a team planning for life after Chanute was gone.
"They didn't waste time. Both efforts were going on at the same time," Boudreaux said. "When the city realized the base was really going to close, they turned all their efforts to planning and organizing for life after closure."
Rantoul's population was around 12,000 when Chanute closed in 1993. A year later, the population had dropped to 8,000. Today, it is about 17,000, Boudreaux said. The city owns 60 percent of the former training base, including two runways reopened to general aviation that the Air Force had closed in 1971, he said.
"The statistics the Air Force used said the base pumped about $300 million into the local economy," he said. "I think that was high, mainly because airmen tended to spend what had disposable income they had on base."
High or not, Rantoul officials had to replace it. "One bit of advice I have for communities going through this: Build on your strengths," Boudreaux said.
First the town examined Chanute's facilities and decided which to keep. The town had no use for the housing areas, for instance. "The [General Services Administration] advertised all over the country for people to buy those areas," Boudreaux said. "But it was our contacts -- and they were local -- who bought them."
Most of the growth on the former base was from local industries or people. Textron Inc., for example, already had a plant in an industrial park in Rantoul. The company, which makes the plastic parts for many of the most popular cars in America, needed more room. The base was perfect, and Textron took over four buildings.
"It was fantastic for us," said Ed Rutkowske, the director of Textron in Rantoul. "The hangars have very high ceilings with no columns in the way. We were able to install our overhead cranes with little problem."
Rutkowske said the city was supportive and leased the facility to the company at very good rates. Textron also buys about $230,000 of power a month from the city-run utility on the former base.
Interstate 57 runs past Rantoul, allowing the company to ship 94 tractor-trailer loads of goods each day on a "just-in-time" schedule. This mode of delivery means customers receive their orders as they need them. "Parts made here today are driving off to assembly lines tomorrow," Rutkowske said.
Textron's facilities now occupy 536,000 square feet on the former base and the company is looking to add another 55,000 square feet to one of the hangars. Further, totaling the work force of its three plants in the city, Textron employs 1,170 people. The company has a $26 million payroll and buys local "when it makes sense," he said.
In another section of the former base something entirely different is being built: character. The Lincoln's Challenge Program, developed by the Illinois National Guard, began even before the base closed in 1993 and today occupies a former 600- bed Air Force dorm. It strives to shape at-risk youth into productive members of society.
"I think we're making a difference here," said Army Capt. Lori A. Stroud, supervisor of admissions and graduate affairs for the program. The young volunteer men and women must be drug-free, between ages 16 and 18, and Illinois residents. "They also must be free of any current involvement in the legal system," she said.
There are two classes a year at Lincoln's Challenge. The program, which has National Guard teachers and administrators, graduates roughly 800 students a year. While employees must be members of the Illinois Guard, this is not their drilling unit. Stroud, for example, drills with an Army Guard unit in Champaign, Ill.
The students dress in uniforms and march to and from classes. "They get a crash course in discipline here," she said. Instructors have students do push-ups for immediate correction.
The program at Rantoul is five months long; after that, each student meets with a mentor for another year. Some 75 percent of those who finish the program earn their high-school equivalency diploma. "We get all types here," Stroud said. "From the 'Sam, I am' readers to college level."
On another part of the former base, Greyhound buses are everywhere. The destination signs on the buses may say "Jackson" or "Chicago" or "Memphis," but they never leave Rantoul. Each year, during its winter slow time, Greyhound conducts a drivers school in a rented building on the former base. The streets and runways become classrooms as Greyhound drivers maneuver their buses into parking spaces, back into confined areas and otherwise work to improve their driving skills.
Other businesses on the former base include Ameritech, which provides cellular and paging services for a five-state area; Eagle Wing Industries; the Fanmarker Inn and restaurant, construction companies, investment firms, a farmers co-op, machine shops and trucking companies. The list goes on.
Developers bought the ready-made housing neighborhoods, renovated the homes and sold them. Residents now go to church in former military chapels and exercise in a health club that was once the base gym. They send their children to the Little Wings Child Care and Learning Center. They can play 18 holes at the former base golf course or camp in a more remote area of the former installation.
But the Air Force will never really leave the area. In the midst of the burgeoning industry is a gem of a museum -- the Chanute Aerospace Museum. Named after aviation pioneer Octave Chanute, for whom the base was named, the museum has exhibits showing life on the base throughout its history. Carpenters are now building a typical World War II barracks in the museum, for example.
"This is part of the heritage of this city," said Cherrie Boudreaux, a volunteer at the museum and Ray's wife. "This will keep the memory alive."
Inside the museum and on ramps outside are a number of aircraft with Air Force and Navy markings -- yet another, tangible reminder of the installation's military past. The museum also sponsors talks by veteran pilots.
Many people can get a chance to see the changes to Rantoul and the former Chanute Air Force Base Aug. 6-15, 1999, when the city hosts the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championships. Organizers expect more than 200,000 people will attend the event. For information point your Web browser to www.balloonchamps.com (site no longer available).
"I have to admit, I think we're doing better today than when the base was open," said Wayne King, a museum volunteer and former Air Force civilian employee here. "There's a bigger variety of jobs, and it's a pretty healthy economy in the area right now."
"This installation is a great resource for the community," Boudreaux said. "A lot of people were scared when Chanute closed, but it's like the old saying -- 'When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.' We've been doing that."