For years, the tiny town of Rantoul, Ill., boasted an economy that was as shiny as a sergeant's shoes. As home to the Air Force's sprawling Chanute Technical Training Center, Rantoul could afford to pay cash for everything from fire engines to a new city hall. But in 1988, the town known for training military pilots looked set to nose-dive when the federal government announced it was closing 76-year-old Chanute, taking along thousands of jobs. "Everyone predicted we'd become a ghost town," says Katy Podagrosi, Rantoul's mayor since 1984.
These days, you won't find a whole lot of tumbleweeds in Rantoul. In the past 18 months since the base finally closed, town leaders have launched an aggressive recovery plan. By hawking real estate at cut-rate prices, Rantoul is remaking the once-government-owned property into a tax-paying industrial complex. While still recovering from the exodus of 5,000 military workers and the money they spread among the town's stores and diners, Rantoul is coming around. Some 20 companies have located or expanded on Chanute's three square miles, boosting the town's preconversion tax revenues by about 30%. And after losing 1,035 civilian jobs, Rantoul has added 1,000 new ones in a more diversified market. "Rantoul really pulled together," says Wallace Bishop Jr., senior project manager for the Defense Dept.'s Office of Economic Adjustment in Washington.
As the Pentagon prepares to announce the closing of some 30 military bases nationwide by Mar. 1, it's eager to point to places like Rantoul as evidence that there is life after the military. Defense officials have been coping with conversions since 1988, when the Pentagon began closing 70 major bases and around 200 smaller installations, wiping out some 172,000 military and 95,000 civilian jobs.
The experience so far is mixed. It takes about six years to close bases completely. And many communities, large and small, are still struggling to generate the taxes to support the new land masses they inherited. They're also having trouble replenishing the lost jobs and income. Take Fort Sheridan, a suburban Chicago army base that in 1988 was slated for closure and shut down in 1993. Efforts to privatize the 700-acre, lakeshore property have been slowed by clashing interests among its three bordering towns, two of which are affluent and one blue-collar. Meanwhile, the federal government is shelling out $5 million a year to maintain the property.
ONE HORSE. But a handful of communities, like Rantoul, have weathered the political fighting, cleanup rules, and tangled bureaucracies and transferred the bases into private hands. Rantoul had little choice. Unlike Fort Sheridan, or Denver's Lowry Air Force Base, both of which benefit from the high property values of big-city neighbors, Rantoul was a one-horse town. Located about 120 miles south of Chicago, it was farmland until 1917, when the airfield tripled its population, to 23,000. Rantoul fought off Pentagon efforts to close the base in the 1970s but lost the recent battle.
After the base closed in 1993, Ran- toul's mayor marshaled politicians and got $3.5 million in federal aid to ease the transition. Mayor Podagrosi, backed by business and community volunteers, also kicked off "Make It Rantoul," a two-year campaign to lure jobs and tax dollars. They are targeting regional firms in distribution, manufacturing, and storage in need of new, low-cost space. "For the first year, I showed the property every day," says Ray Boudreaux, a retired Air Force officer who led the effort. Other selling points: Rantoul's low crime rate and skilled labor force.
But companies were turned off by Rantoul's remote location, a problem for most former bases. The brass at Chicago-based United Airlines Inc. visited Rantoul several times before locating an aircraft maintenance hub in Indianapolis instead. But Rantoul is pushing to be more competitive by offering prospective employers temporary tax breaks and other incentives. They can afford to, since the land was a gift from Washington. So Rantoul is offering lease rates for manufacturing space on the old Chanute acreage for 25 cents to $2.50 per square foot, compared with $8 to $15 in nearby Champaign-Urbana.
DOING WINDOWS. Today, remnants of Chanute are scarce. In the old Hangar I, Rantoul Products Inc. makes dashboards for Chrysler Corp. And Lowell (Ark.)-based J.B. Hunt Transport Inc., a big trucker, has moved its training school into a former maintenance site.
For Caradco, a unit of Aluminum Company of America that makes wooden windows, Chanute's closing was serendipitous. Caradco had been operating in a Rantoul factory since 1976 but wanted to get into the fast-growing market of custom-made windows. "Repositioning the company had been part of our vision, but we didn't know how we'd do it physically," says Caradco President Alan Verploegh. Caradco expanded into the former 40,000-square-foot jet engine maintenance facility, adding 100 jobs, for a total of 900 workers.
Housing has been an easier sell. Developers have already snatched up a quarter of Chanute's 1,300 units of residential housing and are in the process of buying the rest. Since Rantoul never saw a dime of taxes when the houses were in military hands, it's eager for the stream of property-tax revenues that will come from its new housing market. Homes are selling for $23,500 for a two-bedroom townhouse and $60,000 for a three-bedroom home on a golf course. Urbana-based Busey Bank, which bought two troubled Rantoul banks, is betting on a local boom. It already has $3.5 million in Rantoul mortgage loans and expects an additional $1 million by yearend. Busey President Kirk Harney bought the former base commander's spread for about $90,000.
Rantoul hasn't quite shed its military past. The base still gets a single gas bill, and town clerks have the headache of collecting from its new tenants. The Pentagon promised to reclaim a cargo jet months ago. And Air Force vets still hang out at the Red Wheel restaurant. The transition is often painful, but Rantoul shows the peace dividend may be more than just a catchy phrase.
Life After The Military
Like Rantoul, Ill., other towns are trying to turn their former bases into viable commercial projects:
WILLIAMS AIR FORCE BASE
Chandler, Ariz. Closed 1993. Employed 781 civilians, 4,000 military. Converting to an aviation hub, business and training center. Projecting 17,000 jobs.
LORING AIR FORCE BASE
Northern Maine. Closed 1994. Employed 1,311 civilians, 4,000 military. Providing financial services and training for the government. Hoping to create 1,000 jobs.
KINCHLOE AIR FORCE BASE
Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. Closed 1979. Employed 737 civilians, 3,074 military. Now three prisons, two work camps, and assorted manufacturing on site, creating 2,300 jobs.