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By STEPHEN SWISHER
For Rantoul Press
Can a locally influenced mural inspire the people of Rantoul while simultaneously rejuvenating a downtown in need of more visitor attraction?
Paula Hopkins, who owns A House of Flowers at 113 E. Sangamon Ave. in downtown Rantoul, believes it can, and that’s why she initiated a meeting with other local business owners. Hopkins saw a TV report on how a few murals in Danville and Arcola drew attention to their communities, and she wanted to see if Rantoul could benefit similarly.
The murals that have Hopkins so excited were created by a group of artists called Walldogs, who have painted murals in small towns across America in a joint effort with the community to bring pride and business back into the towns.
“I think the murals would be a huge draw and bring traffic into downtown Rantoul,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins is a member of the newly assembled Rantoul Business Group, whose objective is to bring business back downtown. After learning about the Walldogs, she emailed them to set up a meeting in Rantoul.
“People have let our downtown down,” said Hopkins, who hopes the murals and other ideas discussed in previous meetings can revitalize the town that is still recovering from the loss of Chanute Air Force Base.
Eight people, including Mandy Briggs, executive director for the Rantoul Area Chamber of Commerce, attended the meeting Thursday night at Around the Corner Thrift Resale and Antiques store at 119 E Sangamon Ave.
“I came to see what it was all about,” Briggs said, adding, “We need to have another meeting to discuss the Walldogs idea and see where it goes and have a brainstorm session on ways to improve the downtown area.”
The Walldogs representative at the meeting was Scott Lindley, who prefers to be called “Cornbread.” Lindley drove from Mt. Pulaski to explain what the Walldogs can do for a town like Rantoul.
He told of his experience in Danville, a town with similar goals of revitalizing its downtown and attracting visitors. He first met with just three people from Danville, and a year later they had raised the funds to have the Walldogs paint the town’s history on the walls of Danville.
“No community had the money when they started,” Lindley said, “but through pork chop dinners, wine events and community support, it has always worked out.”
Hopkins agreed with Lindley that with the support of the village of Rantoul and its trustees it is possible to get Walldogs to come to Rantoul. She is confident the community can raise enough money but has no idea how many murals Rantoul could get.
“Maybe two or three, but I would love 10,” Hopkins said.
When asked what kind of mural she would like to see in her town, Hopkins said she would love to honor the first Tuskegee Airmen. The grounds crew for the Airmen were initially trained at Chanute Air Force Base.
“There is so much history in Rantoul, especially from the airbase,” Hopkins said. “Rantoul did not forget the men that served from Chanute.”
Lindley said the murals painted by him and his fellow Walldogs both improved how the towns looked and how they felt about themselves. He said the townspeople of Danville banded together to clean up the downtown area by repainting storefronts and sweeping the sidewalks in anticipation of their arrival.
“Before we even got there the town had changed. It inspires the town to change and beautify itself,” Lindley said.
The Walldogs consist of more than 300 international artists, mostly professional muralists and hand-painted sign makers.
Using the slogan “We bring community history back to life, one brush stroke at a time,” they try to capture the essence and history of the towns they come to paint.
The first thing Lindley asks the towns to do is to give 10 stories about the town, and then the Walldogs choose which events or images to depict in their murals and where they will paint them.