Chanute: Base closure revisited 20 years later

Published Jan. 16, 2014
One of Chanute’s technical training classes taught students how to pack and maintain parachutes.

One of Chanute’s technical training classes taught students how to pack and maintain parachutes.

This sign welcomed visitors when Chanute Field was renamed Chanute Air Force Base in 1948.

This sign welcomed visitors when Chanute Field was renamed Chanute Air Force Base in 1948.

Note:  this article is the first of a three-part series about the closing of Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Ill., 20 years ago and what it has meant to the nearby Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL). Part 1 reviews the genesis of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC); Part 2 describes the challenges of former Chanute employees who took new positions at CERL; and Part 3 recaps some of CERL’s later research supporting the BRAC process, environmental issues at shuttered bases, and property transfers. This article first appeared in the Nov. 19, 2013 issue of the ERDC Information Bulletin.

The emergence of BRAC

RANTOUL, Ill. -  In the post-Viet Nam war years, the Department of Defense (DoD) began to downsize the military forces in concert with defense budget cuts. DoD leadership became concerned that the infrastructure supporting troops was not being reduced at the same pace and that the base structure was larger than needed to support the mission. In particular, leaders held that spending on unnecessary or duplicative facilities and bases diverted funds from essential force modernization programs. DoD wanted to close some bases and realign others to streamline operations and optimize funding.

Congress agreed – as long as the bases to be impacted were not located in members’ respective districts. Adding to congressmen’s protective stance was the notion that administrations in both parties had used threats of base closings to leverage Congress’ support for different policies and programs. This led to a statutory provision enacted in 1977 that made closing a base nearly impossible, and included stringent adherence to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which took years to address. As a result, no major bases closed from 1977-91.

During the 1980’s efforts to balance the budget at the same time that the Cold War was in decline, base closure kept reemerging as an opportunity to achieve major savings. The consensus was that some of the nearly 4,000 U.S. military installations could be closed or realigned without affecting the defense posture. In addition, it was believed, locally felt pain from an individual base closing would be offset by huge benefits to taxpayers nationwide.

Several bills introduced during the late 1980s attempted to temper the 1977 restrictions and eventually, in 1988, Congress passed the Defense Authorization Amendments and Base Closure and Realignment Act, breaking the gridlock. Two provisions in the Act led to its approval as a way to depoliticize base closing:  (1) recommended actions from DoD would be assessed by an independent commission appointed by the President and approved by the Senate and (2) the resulting list of closures and realignments would be subject to an all-or-nothing vote by Congress – no changes would be allowed.

On December 29, 1988, the first BRAC commission released the list of bases slated for closure or realignment. Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Ill, was listed for closure.

The “locally felt pain”

“It was devastating,” said Judy Kopmann, an administrative assistant in CERL’s Management Integration Office who was secretary to Chanute’s Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Chief at the time of the announcement. “When we heard it was serious this time, it was just like a death had happened. No one knew what to say or what to do.”

The base had opened as Chanute Field in 1917 to train pilots for the Army Air Corps to fight in World War I. Compared to the allied British Flying Corps and French Aviation Militaire, U.S. air power was seriously lacking. The War Department chose Rantoul as the location for the field due to its flat landscape, infrastructure and other support available in the community, and nearness to the Illinois Central railroad for ease of transporting recruits.

Following the war, Chanute was recommended for closure as the military downsized. Instead, the War Department authorized purchasing the field and surrounding acreage. Over the next seven decades, as with many other bases, investment in Chanute’s facilities would grow and then stagnate in cycles, depending on U.S. military involvement. It was renamed Chanute Air Force Base in 1948. Over the years, it became exclusively a technical training school, with the last runway closing in 1971.

In the years after the Korean Conflict, Chanute’s facilities deteriorated and it gained a negative reputation as the place you sent an airman who needed to be disciplined. The popular joke was, “Don’t shoot ‘em, Chanute ‘em!” But by the late ‘70s, the base had gained several additional training missions and DoD was funding construction of new facilities to support them.

According to Diane Biggs, a contract specialist at CERL, “They spent millions on a new fire training station, new barracks, and lots of other buildings, so even though we had been on a previous closing list, we said, ‘they’ll never close it.’ But they did.” Biggs had worked at Chanute for 14 years, with her career progressing through positions in the Finance, Human Resources and Contracts offices followed by eight years at the base hospital.

Located less than 15 miles from CERL in Champaign, Chanute played an important role in the lab’s early years as the closest base that could support various military requirements. Chanute’s leaders served as advisors during CERL’s planning phases, and later the base helped with protocol questions, provided the Air Force band for events, and loaned buses for the lab’s different transportation needs.

The fallout

The first round of BRAC offered the affected communities little in the way of assistance or enabling legislation to help them recover from a base closure. As a result, it has taken small, rural towns like Rantoul years to try and regain economic stability. Later rounds refined the processes of evaluating bases proposed for BRAC action and for helping communities redevelop abandoned properties. For example, starting with the second BRAC, at least two commission members were required to visit the bases being considered for listing.

Harold Balbach, research biologist at CERL, had been involved in environmental impact analysis of Army installations in the earliest deliberations. He recalls, “Chanute’s schools duplicated many of those at a base in Texas, and the story goes that as planners were sitting around discussing which place should get the mission, someone asked, ‘well, has anyone ever been to either of these bases?’ To which one person replied, ‘I visited Chanute once. The weather was terrible.’ Clearly they had not been to southern Texas in the summer.”

Whether the climate actually determined Chanute’s fate is open to speculation as the selection process was less than transparent in 1988 compared to later BRACs. One outcome is for sure:  Rantoul took a gigantic hit when the base closed, with many businesses folding, the population and its tax base declining by 50%, losses of over $100 million per year in revenue, a two-thirds drop in the local student population and subsequent loss of federal funding, a polluted landscape, and many other urban impacts.

The human side of “locally felt pain” cannot be quantified. Sandy Bantz, now a visual information specialist with ACE-IT at CERL, had worked at the base for 13 years. “Chanute was the only place to work,” she said. “My dad and uncles all worked there, and I thought that, like them, I would retire from the base. I enjoyed the experience while it lasted and was really sorry to see it go.”