RANTOUL — Village trustees could find no evidence of questionable business affiliations by a Los Angeles businessman who plans to buy three hangars and other property at the Rantoul airport.
Also, the hangars won’t be housing a bioengineering technology company as originally indicated.
John Van Der Velde originally planned to buy three hangars on the former Chanute Air Force Base for $3.4 million. Mayor Chuck Smith said Van Der Velde later approached Coldwell Banker Commercial Devonshire Realty, which is marketing the properties, and said he would also like to buy the building that houses the AT&T call center on base — bringing the sale total to $5.15 million.
"We saw that as a prime opportunity to put that building back on the tax rolls. We saw that as a good move taxwise and industrially and will allow us to get creative with the (base) and enhance the development of jobs," Smith said.
The plan to include the AT&T building in the deal was not made public until just a few days before last week’s monthly village board meeting. It alarmed many AT&T workers, who said the company was not notified. They raised questions about possible questionable business dealings by Van Der Velde, which apparently are not true. They did not go public with what those supposed dealings were.
Van Der Velde told the Press earlier that he has prospective tenants for the hangars, including a bioengineering technology company. That plan has changed, Smith said.
AT&T employee Holly Sorey, who is president of the Communication Workers of America union at the call center, asked the village board several questions at Tuesday night’s monthly meeting.
They included whether AT&T had been notified of the sale, whether the company’s current lease would be honored, what plans the village has for the more than 100 jobs that could potentially be lost at the property and whether those jobs would be moved elsewhere in town.
Village Administrator Rick Snider said based on his discussions with the broker for the deal that the purchaser "highly values AT&T, (and knows) that they’re a national credit tenant. They’re very valuable to keep in place. I think a sale would make it more likely to stay in place."
AT&T formerly used two floors of the Rantoul building, which is located at the airport, but last year began leasing just one floor.
AT&T employee Dea Polchow listed the names of several individuals and companies and asked if the village knew if Van Der Velde was associated with them in the past. Village officials said they were not familiar with the names. She asked what kind of background checks had been done on the prospective buyer.
"Do you know that the previous bioengineering companies that he has (dealt with) are not so reputable?" Polchow asked.
She asked what would be stored in the buildings, whether they would be renovated, how they would be maintained and what the village would do to ensure public safety.
Snider said the village is still working on the transfer of the property deeds from the Air Force and the FAA to the village and that the "due diligence" process will continue until September.
AT&T employee Amy Blaisdell also asked questions about potential harmful materials stored or produced in the hangars.
Smith said the village’s code enforcement department and the Illinois EPA will be responsible for ensuring public safety and said he believes "we’re way ahead of the game" before some of the questions can be answered.
Added Blaisdell: "When we looked up the names on the signature who is going to be buying it, ... me and my union reps started doing some research and ... found a lot of the businesses linked to his name don’t have a very good reputation," Blaisdell said.
Village attorney Ken Beth said the property’s zoning allows only light industrial use.
AT&T Area Manager John Williams said open communication is "critical for maintaining a strong partnership with our employees in the communities we serve."
Williams said repeatedly that management was not aware of the village’s intent to sell the property.
"I’ve uprooted my family," Williams said. "I have personally helped deliver jobs to the community. In the last 60 days I have personally interviewed more than 70 candidates and made job offers personally to more than 40, and it is my intent to hire another 65 before the end of the fall."
Williams said he communicates well and implied that communication was lacking in the matter.
The board opted to continue the meeting until Thursday night. All five trustees said at the continued meeting that they had investigated the possible questionable dealings by Van Der Velde and could find no evidence of such.
Touching on questions about the village’s ability to control any potential hazardous materials at any of the hangars, Public Works Director Greg Hazel said the village has "a number of ordinances, codes and policies in place that, with any business that would come to town, there are plans and permit requirements reviewed by staff, our code enforcement team."
Hazel said the staff looks at the utility needs, waste stream generated, "pretty much every industry, light or heavy, that has some kind of EPA-required permit that the village sees and is approved by the state."
Hazel said he is "quite comfortable" with the village policies that are in place "to monitor any type of activities that go on for a business that is coming to town."
Smith said he contacted Van Der Velde and mentioned concerns the hangars might house a bioengineering technology facility. Van Der Velde, however, said that plan has changed.
"He said he thought he would start off with a data center instead of biotech engineering," Smith said, adding that Van Der Velde did not give any further details.
"He just gave me assurances that, ‘Mr. Smith, you will not be sorry about this deal.’"
Smith also said AT&T should not be concerned about losing its building.
"There’s no plans to kick them out," Smith said. "They’ve got a solid contract."
Smith said he spoke with AT&T officials, whom he said indicated "it didn’t really matter who they write their (rent) checks to" — whether the village of Rantoul or Van Der Velde.
Responding to questions from Sorey at Thursday’s meeting, Beth said the lease price to be paid by AT&T will be locked in at the same amount paid to the village. The company also has an option to renew its lease for the building through 2026, the lease price of which is also locked in.
Sorey asked what types of chemicals are allowed under "light industrial." Beth said that information is available on the village website.
The board voted 4-1 Thursday to amend the sales agreement with Van Der Velde to also include the AT&T center. Trustee Sam Hall cast the lone "no" vote.
The board voted 5-0 to approve a resolution authorizing an addendum to an exclusive right to sell property with Coldwell Banker Commercial Devonshire Realty.
After the meeting, Sorey said she appreciated the trustees’ efforts to look into the AT&T employees’ concerns but added, "What I’m not understanding is why, if this was such a good business, ... everything is so hush hush.
"We’ve got some good trustees up there," Sorey said. "I think a lot of this could have been avoided if they had notified AT&T and if they were straight with what was coming to town. I don’t understand the secrecy. I do still have concerns."
In the public comment section, Jasmyne Boyce had several questions.
She asked what the nature and relationship of Economic Development Director Rebecca Motley is with the village now that the contract with the Center for Community Adaptation, for which Motley works, has expired.
Smith said he would provide that information to Boyce if she submitted it in writing. Boyce said the village normally does not respond to her inquiries and requests, whether made at board meetings, by email or by phone.
Smith told the Press on Friday that Motley is working for the village under a three-month extension, with her last day of employment July 30.
"We had to retain her because we’re in the middle of all these deals and negotiations with potential investors in the community," Smith said. "She has played an important part in that."
Boyce said officials expressed faith in the village’s ability to enforce its codes and ordinances, but a public health hazard concern that she filed a week earlier has met with no action.
She said Scott Morgan, building safety manager, thanked her for the notification, but nothing has been done about standing water in four buildings between Snyder Street and Embassy Row that are owned by Amerinvest.
"They are still wide open, untaped, unsigned, unmarked," Boyce said. There is no way "to keep children out. There were intoxicated children (shown) on film near those water hazards."
She encouraged code enforcement to restrict access for "the safety of our children."