The Good Chaplain and I took a trip down memory lane this week when we visited the now-closed Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, IL. It was hard to see many of the buildings boarded it up. It also brought back memories of base life.
Chanute was decommissioned in 1993, but before that, it was one of 32 Air Service training camps in the U.S. during World War I. After the First World War, the base was used as a storage depot for plane engines and other surplus items. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Chanute became a training facility for ground crews, and later as a training base to include intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). In 1971, all military flight operations were closed at Chanute, and it became a non-flying training base until 1993 when it was closed permanently.
Not to say bases look alike, but we could pick out an astonishing number of buildings for what they were used for. Hangars are obvious, but we also picked out the golf pro shop, the chapel, the hospital, the fire station, the headquarters building, the shoppette/gas station, and, of course, base housing.
Many base areas are used by the Village of Rantoul and repurposed as housing, a motel, a fitness center, daycare centers, the golf pro shop and course, and a general aviation airport.
But several of the buildings are unused and boarded up. We felt a certain melancholy at all the unused space which could be fixed up and repurposed for the village or private use. Housing even looked the same as older housing on other bases where we lived, and I wondered why none of it was updated.
One reason for the disuse of certain buildings is that the former base is an EPA Superfund site because of all the chemicals used over the years. Also, many of the buildings have asbestos and other issues that come along with older buildings.
The closure of Chanute hit the economy of Rantoul and the surrounding area very hard. The base employed 2,665 civilians at the time of closure. The loss of military and civilians caused revenue to decrease, while the village’s number of roads doubled. The street and police department budgets also doubled. The village also was responsible for the repair and maintenance of gas and steam systems at the base and the many buildings in need of repair or demolition.
Chanute contributed 25 percent of the total economy of the village of Rantoul. But with the base closure, other businesses left as well, such as restaurants, retail, construction, and auto.
In a 2014 survey of residents, people reported that Rantoul’s biggest challenges included negative community image, a large number of rental units and low-income housing, dilapidated buildings, lack of downtown events, and limited downtown shopping hours, a slow economy, and Chanute maintenance and redevelopment.
While I did not go downtown in Rantoul, our drive around the former base gave me the impression of an impoverished community that needs a lot of work. The fact that old base housing was still being used instead of being renovated or torn down was evidence enough without the other empty, boarded-up buildings. And I know Rantoul is not the only community to still have negative economic effects of a base closure.
As I said earlier, I felt melancholy at the base’s emptiness and conditions, one I know was once vital to the military and the community to thrive. I pray for all communities facing the same situation because of military downsizing.
Until next time,
Have you visited a base or live near one that has closed? What was the effect on the community? Post your answers in the comments below.