Rantoul Looks At Turning Air Base Into Food Hub
By Sean Powers
There is interest in Champaign County about transforming at least part of Rantoul’s former Chanute Air Force Base into a facility where locally grown food can be processed and distributed to area businesses.
Supporters say this “food hub” would drive up interest in local produce by improving access to it. Backers of the project include officials with the University of Illinois, the village of Rantoul, and the Champaign County Farm Bureau.
Farm Bureau Manager Bradley Uken said the proposed food hub would only be one part of this project.
“We’re looking at this big picture of not just your typical food hub. It is must more than that,” Uken said. “It is the farming. It’s education. It’s research. It’s aggregation. It’s packing. It’s all of that."
Uken said he sees this project as an opportunity to shepherd in the next generation of agricultural workers who are growing up on small family farms.
“This is a great opportunity for some of the younger individuals where may be the operation isn’t big enough for another family to be brought into the operation,” he said. “This is for some farmers to kind of diversify their operations (through) local foods. It’s a different type of agriculture, but it’s clearly part of agriculture.”
The Chanute Air Force Base closed in 1993, taking away thousands of jobs and leaving dozens of old, empty buildings in Rantoul.
Mike Royse, a consultant working with the village on behalf of the Center for Community Adaptation, is exploring the feasibility of developing the shuttered military base. The village is paying the center $4,000 a month for his services. Royse said Chanute is a perfect spot to begin looking forward.
“The old Chanute Air Force base is an underutilized asset that used to supply 10,000 jobs to our region,” he said. “It’s a source of blight, and it deserves our focus. It’s better than looking at areas that are currently economically viable, and doing it there.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the success of food hubs is growing, with more than 200 operating across the country. The agency recently awarded a $99,000 grant to Heartland Community College, in partnership with the community - based Edible Economy Project, to start up three food hubs in Central Illinois.
The locations of those hubs have not been finalized. Royse said he has been in talks about partnering with the recipients of the grant.
“There are other counties in our Midwest region who have started to really focus on growing their own food, and we import a lot of food now,” Royse said. “If we could not do that and profitably grow our food here, we could add a lot of value.”
Meanwhile, Royse said he is also reviewing the possibility of starting up a biofuel production facility at the Chanute Air Force Base. He maintained any discussions about future developments at the site are still in the early phases.