RANTOUL — A Taiwan-based company has purchased a large facility on the former Chanute Air Force Base to serve as its U.S. regional headquarters and as a manufacturing facility.
UAN Power Corp has purchased the former post office-community center at 815 Enterprise Drive from Amerinvest.
The property is located directly east of Lincoln’s Challenge Academy.
UAN Investment Director Jeff Cheng said the company will employ "10 to 20" people — initially planning to manufacture tapioca balls and the increasingly popular bubble tea.
If successful, production could expand to high-end headphones, an organic sugar substitute and enzyme drinks fermented from various varieties of fruit.
Cheng said he hopes production of tapioca balls/bubble tea can begin as early as this summer.
He said the company also intends to make the 6,000-square-foot office area, formerly used as the NCO officer’s club, into its regional headquarters. The office and production areas will encompass 53,000 square feet sitting on 4.2 acres.
Cheng said UAN has been wanting to dive into the U.S. market and needed a factory/warehouse in this country so its stock can begin selling on the NASDAQ stock market.
"However, after I looked at the (Rantoul) property, I realized there were more things we could use it for because it’s bigger than expected," he said, citing the low start-up costs and the willingness of local businesses and village government to work with them in helping to cement the deal.
Cheng said his group of investors only recently took over the company.
Tapioca balls and bubble tea are more popular in Asian countries.
Ian Wang, partner and general manager of Amerinvest, said three things proved attractive to UAN to purchase the buildings and surrounding land, including the low cost of the property, the proximity to the University of Illinois and Rantoul’s foreign trade zone status. (Mayor Chuck Smith said at least one local company is already taking advantage of being in the FTZ and one more might in the future.)
The university has the largest Chinese student population in the United States.
"Most of the tapioca balls are made in Thailand and Taiwan," Cheng said. "They ship 100-200 containers per month. It’s very big in Asian countries and on campus."
The same can be said about bubble tea, which was invented about 30 years ago. Bubble tea is sweet tea with tapioca balls.
"Once you shake it, it has the bubbles on the top," Cheng said.
This will mark the first production facility of the product in the United States.
Rantoul’s foreign trade zone status could also make the deal more profitable for UAN.
A foreign trade zone is a location in the U.S. where companies can use special procedures to help encourage U.S. activity and value in competition with foreign alternatives by allowing delayed or reduced-duty payments on foreign merchandise as well as other savings.
While Cheng said manpower costs are cheaper overseas, production of food products "is safer" in the United States.
"It will be FDA approved," Cheng said, adding that the water and environmental quality are better in the U.S. "Nobody’s making it here except us."
UAN also plans to turn the office area into a showroom to allow the public to sample the product.
Wang said the building, whose grounds have fallen into disrepair, was used for the base post office. It was also the site of two bars, a video shop and a pizza restaurant. The Air Force built on the more modern brick NCO facility on the west side of the complex in the mid-1980s, Wang said.
A relative of Cheng’s, William Ouyan, a University of Illinois student, will serve as on-site manager. Cheng said Ouyan’s uncle is one of the largest manufacturers of sweets in Asia with whom UAN hopes to partner in some way in the future.
"I asked him why he is in the candy business. He said, ‘Candy makes people happy,’" Cheng said.
UAN would also like to invest in shrimp and lobster farms in the United States at some point.
Jason Bartell, a local attorney, CPA and founder of the law firm of Bartell Powell LLP, was a college classmate of Cheng and put him in contact with Wang, whose company formerly owned Prairie Village (now Eagle’s View) retirement community and owns apartment buildings and other property in Rantoul.
Wang said he has been meeting with Smith on occasion over the past couple of years to bring an investor to the property.
Smith called it "a major improvement for the community.
"It decreases Ian Wang’s liability out there. It’s a win-win for everyone," Smith said.