As Military Molts Its Bases, One Town Keeps On Flying

BASE REBIRTH

THROUGHOUT the cold war hundreds of Rantoul residents worked at a base nearby the town, helping the Air Force train missile mechanics and other technicians in preparation for the "Big One" - World War III.

Ultimately, though, the 18,000 people of Rantoul - like the neighbors of military bases nationwide - discovered that the "final conflict" is not against communism but obsolescence.

Rantoul has been fighting for its livelihood since 1988, when the Pentagon announced the closing of Chanute Air Force Base as part of the first round of base closures. So far, it seems to be winning.

Twenty-one months after the base shut down, Rantoul offers lessons on how to deploy lobbying, marketing, and boosterism to sustain an economy when the military pulls out of town.

Its experience is especially relevant this week as the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission finishes its third round of deliberations.

The commission will forward a list of about 70 recommended base-closures to President Clinton by July 1. He must accept or reject it in its entirety. Congress must eventually do the same.

"We're not doing better than we were before [the closing], but we're doing way better than we expected," says Robin Kaler, executive director at the Rantoul Chamber of Commerce.

Rantoul once relied on the Air Force for 2,500 civilian jobs and 65 percent of its economic activity. But the town has avoided the economic crash that so many military-dependent communities foresee when their bases are closed. Last year, revenues from a sales tax rose 7 percent over the 1993 level, says Mayor Katy Podagrosi.

Also, the town has lured 55 businesses employing more than 1,200 people. The companies have leased 63 percent of the 2 million square feet in the hangars and red brick buildings at the former base, says Ray Boudreaux, superintendent of the the Rantoul Aviation and Development Center.

Moreover, 400 civilians have purchased homes built by the military - about one-third of the available housing. "We can't keep up with demand," says Mr. Boudreaux, noting the homes require installation of utility meters and safety upgrading.

Still, the former technical-training base is not a post cold war idyll. Pigeons, tufts of weeds, and mothballed aircraft stand lost amid the acres of cracked Tarmac. Many buildings are boarded up and the roads, although tree-lined, are badly potholed. A gaggle of tractor-trailers driven by students at a J.B. Hunt Transport Inc. driving school rumbles across grounds once clapped by the nobler sound of aircraft overhead.

Still, Rantoul officials have, through a combination of grit and the needling of politicians and federal officials, tried to make the best of their 1,200-acre inheritance from Uncle Sam.

The town has sold about half of the property - residences, support buildings, and an 18-hole golf course - to developers and private companies. It has retained the remaining property, including an airport for small planes.

In addition to securing $3.5 million in federal funds for maintenance and caretaking of base facilities, Rantoul has won $250,000 from the Economic Development Agency under the Department of Commerce for promoting and marketing the base as a commercial area.

Progress has come painfully slow, however, largely because the Defense Department was not geared to padlock Chanute and other bases involved in the first big wave of shutdowns. "The communities that are coming after us will have it much better because the Defense Department in working with the 1988 round of closures has learned a lot about how to transfer properties," says Mayor Podagrosi.

Understaffed federal offices took 12 months too long in appraising properties, completing environmental studies, assessing whether buildings were of historical significance, and completing other paperwork, says the mayor.

While Rantoul confronted obstacles as would any pathfinder, it capitalized on advantages other towns might not enjoy. Rantoul had nearly five years of preparation before the shutdown. Moreover, economic growth in 1993 and '94 created 1,000 jobs, cushioning the closure's blow. And Rantoul tapped know-how from nearby University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Ultimately, the demise of Chanute might prove to be a blessing. "We will be a much stronger community because we're not a one-company town anymore," says Ms. Kaler.

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