By Jeff Kelly Lowenstein/Hoy — Rantoul is a town with a proud military heritage.
You see it on the name “Veterans Parkway” and the series of red, white and blue rectangular banners that line the side of the street on telephone poles along Route 136.
Here is a tribute to Pfc. Jesse Kessler. There is a flag honoring Sgt. Jason M. Berry.
You can read it on signs that point you to the Aviation Museum.
And you can feel it on the spacious Chanute Air Force Base that dominated the local economy for much of its 76 years of existence.
Corn farmer John Clifford grew up in Rantoul during the latter part of those years, and his eyes gleam with pleasure when he remembers that time in the town’s history.
“It was the best,” he said, citing the town’s schools, safe environment and ample housing stock.
In addition to the struggles many small towns face, Rantoul sustained a major blow in 1993. That was when Chanute Air Force Base, the county’s largest employer, was shuttered, a casualty of post-Cold War budget cuts.
Nearly 20 years later, the imprint of that departure is still visible in the city’s downtown area and former business district.
Whole blocks of stores lie vacant.
The movie theater also looks as if it’s been closed for years.
Neon lights are missing.
Rust on the orange part of the sign.
The circular ticket counter looks lonely and abandoned.
But, within the past decade or so, new life has started to come to the community.
Much of it is Latino.
In a dynamic that is happening in communities throughout the country, the decline in the white population is being at least partially offset by the surge in Latinos. The number of Latinos living in Rantoul increased 262 percent in the past decade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Whereas just 346 Latinos were in Rantoul in 2000, by 2010 that number had increased to 1,252.
The white numbers decreased by 1,664 during the same time, a dip of 17 percent, so the Latino growth played a significant role in the overall population remaining essentially stable at about 13,000 people.
The percentage of students in the Rantoul City School District 137 has seen an ever greater increase, soaring from 2.7 percent in 2000 to 13.6 percent in 2010, according to the Illinois Interactive Report Card.
That’s a more than 400 percent increase.
There has been a trickle effect for employers and business owners in the community as well.
Mike Patterson, manager of the Boost Mobile shop on Sangamon Ave., said he’s got all bilingual workers at his store that sits near grocery store La Victoria on the city’s major street. He’s done this because the workers can communicate with the 35 to 40 percent of customers he estimates speak Spanish.
“If they have a problem, I can’t understand or communicate with them,” Patterson said about his customers.
For Craig Williams, the surging numbers of Latinos convinced him to move his family and photography business from Champaign to Rantoul in October 2011.
“I’m here basically because of the Latino community,” said Williams, who estimated that 60 percent of his Digital Creations business comes from Latino customers. “The Latinos were the only ones who were keeping me in the business.”
And St. Malachy’s Catholic Church now has a weekly mass in Spanish.
But the impact is more than strictly demographic and a source of employees, customers and parishioners.
Through their initiative in a variety of fronts-business, religious and community service-Latinos are pumping new life into the community, and doing so with varying levels of governmental assistance.
The trend has accelerated in the past six years, as Central Illinois’ only Spanish-language radio station, three Mexican stores, two restaurants, a pair of tax preparers, a church, an auto repair shop, and a multicultural community center have opened in different parts of the city.
All are run by Latinos.
Many have a reach and impact on the larger community.
“What we have down here is agriculture, there is a lot of Latinos that come for the seasons,” said Sue Campbell, office manager of the Rantoul Chamber of Commerce “With that being said, they brought in some of the business that we have now.”
“They’re making an investment, that’s something we support,” Campbell said.
In the early part of last decade, consumers looking to frequent Latino-owned stores had far fewer options.
Sol Azteca, a restaurant on Route 45 that is often filled with non-Latino customers, and Supermercado El Rey, a Mexican store on 136 next to Monical’s Pizza, were the only available choices.
That started to change in 2006.
That was the year in which Ruben Acevedo, a real estate developer with 20 years of experience in the radio industry, purchased and opened Radio Variedades, WKJR 1460 AM.
It was and remains the first Spanish-language radio station in Central Illinois.
Run by DJ Jimmy Rodriguez, the station attracts about 26,000 listeners in its signal that goes out in a 90-mile radius from its office on Garrard Street, he said.
Rodriguez said the station largely plays Mexican regional music, but Acevedo explained that listeners to Radio Variedades can listen to tunes from El Salvador to Costa Rica and hear callers from Argentina, Guatemala, Honduras and Spain.
“We’re directed to all communities, not like in Chicago, in which the stations are mainly focused on the Mexican community,” Acevedo said.
The station is just one of the street’s Latino-owned businesses.
Mi Pueblo, a Mexican store where customers can choose between 10 types of chile, send money to Mexico or learn about upcoming concerts, stands across the street. It opened for business about five years ago, according to Miguel Morales, a worker who’s been employed there since 2010.
Next door to Mi Pueblo is Las Flores, a tax preparation and financial agency that Gaston Perez opened in 2008.
The Mexico City native says he’s busiest in April during tax season, adding that all of his clients are Latino.
Initiative by Latinos is not limited to business.
In a shopping mall on route 136, a hand painted white sign announces the “Fuente de Agua Viva,” church. Led by Manuel and Sonia Casco, the Pentecostal church holds thrice weekly services.
She said the church’s ranks have expanded from 28 members when it opened in November 2007 to 60 this year. Worshippers come from Mexico and Central American countries like El Salvador and Costa Rica as well as Texas, she said.
Not far from the church, within the grounds of the former Air Force base, stands the Multicultural Community Center, a facility that proudly proclaims that it serves the children of Mexican migrant farm workers.
Opened in 2010 and headed by the tenacious Martha Gonzalez, the center serves about 70 children. Many of her charges have traveled to the area with their families from Texas and Florida, who work the summer months detasseling, and then harvesting, corn and other crops for companies like Monsanto, Pioneer, and Syngenta, among others.
Gonzalez explained that many of the migrants, lured by promises of full-time work, Head Start for the children and lucrative pay, come hopeful of reaping a bonanza through their hard work.
Instead, many end up staying to seek better financial opportunities.
For his part, Acevedo of Radio Variedades said that the town has paid little attention to the station other than to give public service announcements they want Jimmy Gonzalez and others at the station to read on the air.
“We do more for them than they do for us,” he said.
But Victor Torres had a different story.
Victor Torres is a Chicago transplant and former car salesman who opened takeaway restaurant Maria’s Tacos with his wife in December.
A native of the Pilsen neighborhood, Torres explained that he moved to nearby Paxton because he wanted a safer and slower pace of life for his wife and three of his four sons (The oldest, who is now 26 years old, remained in Chicago.).
Torres said he has no problems with members of the local community, noting that town officials have helped him get the permits necessary to open the restaurant and to purchase two nearby buildings.
“The police are spreading the word about the business,” he said. “Everyone we talk to, they’re glad we’re investing in the area.”
Torres said the town is encouraging him to buy two restaurants and guided them through the process of applying for a micro-loan. A separate rental building could hold about 200 customers, he said.
Eddie Carter, chairman of the Micro Loan Fund Review Committee, said the program was a program set up with the closure of the base to help establish businesses in the community. The city has to put up matching funds.
Torres said he’s encouraging friends in Chicago to join him in Rantoul. He believes there’s a need for a Mexican bakery and that good money can be made there.
But he said they’re not moving until they see how things work out for him.
“They’re waiting for the results,” Torres said.
For her part, Campbell of the Chamber of Commerce acknowledged that the town’s initial acceptance of the newcomers was a bit slow at first
”It’s taken a little bit,” she said. “We don’t know what their culture is like”-but said that the Chamber leadership sees Latinos as a key part of the town’s effort to rebrand itself.
That process recently started, but Campbell said that people like Gonzalez and Torres have been invited to participate in monthly meetings.
“They very much will be in the process going forward,” she said. “We’re in the early stages, but we’re getting their input from the beginning.”