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RANTOUL — One of the last signs that Rantoul at one time held an Air Force base will vanish at the end of this year.
Chanute Air Museum, which has operated in the community since the spring of 1994 — just months after the closure of the base the previous fall — will close Dec. 30.
“This was not an easy decision for anybody,” Nancy Kobel, air museum board president, said.
She said finances was the primary reason for the action.
Village of Rantoul officials had asked the air museum to help pay more of its costs of operation. The village had footed most of the bill to keep the museum open and can no longer afford to do that, Jeff Fiegenschuh, village administrator, said.
Fiegenschuh and Rune Duke, airport manager, met with air museum officials Wednesday and received the news.
“We were surprised,” Fiegenschuh said. “We’d been meeting with the board now for some time to discuss opportunities to help them figure out some of the problems they’d been having.
“The village had been very supportive of them throughout the years. The goal was (that the) museum continue to operate.”
The closing is caused by a trickle-down effect of BRG Sports ceasing to be a long-time tenant of Hangar 1 at the airport — the lease had generated substantial income for the facility — and the construction of the new Lincoln’s Challenge Academy campus in Rantoul. The academy, which has been paying $18,000-a-year rent and $75,000 a year for utilities, will move out of Grissom Hall, which it shared with the air museum, and into its new campus in 2016.
Other Grissom Hall tenants are Rantoul Historical Society Museum, Rantoul Theatre Group and Rantoul Community Bicycle Recycling Program.
The air museum, which has a monthly operating budget of about $10,000, was paying the village $5,000 a year rent. The rent figure would also have climbed if the museum had remained in the building.
Fiegenschuh said the airport lost half a million dollars last year, and utility costs of $350,000 were a big part in that.
Kobel said air museum officials had studied several options to keep the museum open, including building a new facility and raising sufficient funds to pay the full cost of utilities and rent that would allow for “energy-efficient improvements to the building.” But it soon became apparent that closure was the only viable option.
Even if someone would build the museum a new building, Kobel said, it could not afford to keep it open.
Kobel said the village has done a great deal to help the museum, but Fiegenschuh said the village could no longer continue to pay the costs.
“We just can’t sustain the $350,000 a year,” Fiegenschuh said. “We can’t ask the general fund to support it, and the airport was losing money. We have a fiduciary responsibility to our tenants and the airport and the residents.”
The administrator said he will ask the village board to use some of the money it will save in not operating Grissom Hall to help the museum with closing costs. Duke said he met with Mark Hanson, museum curator, about the museum’s collection “and the best way to prevent any damage to it (and) its transition.”
“We’ll be doing anything we can to assist them and the decision they made,” Duke said. “We’re not fully aware of what they’re going to have remaining, what they’re going to have donated to other museums. We’re going to continue to meet with them to understand what is required during the transition. We stand ready to support them.”
Hanson said the air museum has two planes on loan from the U.S. Navy and 32 artifacts, including 28 planes, from the Air Force. Among the other artifacts are a Minuteman missile, which stands next to the west entrance to the former base, and a Hound Dog missile in the museum.
When Mayor Chuck Smith said last year the village is considering removing the Minuteman missile to create a more modern look, many residents objected, and he decided the missile would remain there.
Also making removal difficult is it was filled with concrete when erected in the ‘60s, and it would have to be demolished to remove it.
Hanson said whether the missile will remain is uncertain, but said, “That’s their (the Air Force’s) decision. It couldn’t stand there without a loan agreement with someone.”
Hanson said the museum might not have to pay to remove the planes.
“All the military craft are on loan. It’s federal property, so in our loan agreement, we are not supposed to be involved in any kind of third-party arrangements,” Hanson said. “When we officially terminate the loan agreement, the Air Force puts its machinery to work to find new homes for those airplanes. Because the government can incur no cost, whoever is interested in the plane will foot the bill.”
Hanson said, however, if no one can be found to take the planes, “then that’s a different story we need to work through with the Air Force” in terms of how their removal would be funded.
The airplanes and missiles are just a part of what the air museum holds. The large-archive collection includes photos, documents and numerous other articles. The object collection includes three-dimensional items such as uniforms, aircraft instruments, tools and library collections such as books, magazines and some video material.
Hanson, the only full-time employee of the museum, (there are several part-time employees plus volunteers) was asked if he saw the closure coming.
“I didn’t want to see it coming,” Hanson said, “but unfortunately we have responsibilities as a museum, and we cannot ignore the fact that we do not have the resources to meet those.”
He said the work of getting all museum items relocated starts immediately.
Kobel said Hanson spoke with an expert in closing museums and nonprofits to get some tips.
The board president said everything has happened quickly.
“This all happened in a 90-day period,” Kobel said.
She said the museum board was seeing improvement in its finances in the last few years, but not nearly enough to keep the museum open while also paying rent and utilities.
Attendance just wasn’t there — Kobel estimating the museum would need about 6,500 people a month to come through the door to meet budget under the new arrangements.
While the decision to close was difficult, it’s the proper thing to do, Kobel said.
“We would be irresponsible as a board if we didn’t do the right thing,” she said. “Knowing what the financial future looks like, we had to make that decision to protect the collection and the artifacts.”