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For northwest Illinois’ economy, Thomson prison ‘going to be good’

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Updated: November 8, 2012 12:09PM

In Thomson, a struggling town of fewer than 600 people on the northwest edge of Illinois, good jobs are nearly as scarce as inmates at the vacant Thomson Correctional Center.

The hard economic times explain why many residents enthusiastically welcomed the abrupt announcement Tuesday that the Federal Bureau of Prisons is buying the mothballed prison for $165 million from Illinois.

Residents there and in a string of neighboring small towns along the Mississippi River hope a new owner means the massive, maximum-security prison completed in 2001 will finally open.

Though opening the prison would bring up to 1,600 inmates to the 142-acre complex on the north edge of Thomson, the move also would create desperately needed jobs and economic activity in the recession-worn region.

“These people here need jobs. I hope they fill it up with prisoners,” said 88-year-old Mary Craig, as she ate lunch at Dusty’s Pizza Plus, the busiest place in Thomson’s sleepy, block-long downtown.

“It’s been empty for too damn long,” added her friend, Jackie Smith, 51.

Opening the correctional center could create up to 1,100 permanent jobs and generate an estimated $200 million annually in economic activity, according to backers who include Gov. Pat Quinn and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.

Local officials say any economic benefit the prison brings makes the sale worthwhile.

“It’s going to help,” said Thomson Mayor Jerry “Duke” Hebeler, who has long pushed for the sale or reopening of the prison. “For northwest Illinois, it’s going to be good for jobs, revenues and the economy.”

Hebeler, who has lived in Thomson for more than 50 years, called it a “Social Security and retirement town” populated largely by seniors living on fixed incomes. The town and surrounding area badly need good jobs offering insurance and other benefits as a way to attract younger people and families — even if those jobs are in a prison filled with federal criminals, he said.

“I wish it was a factory, but it’s not,” Hebeler said, before ticking off closures or cutbacks at large employers that have hurt the area, including the 2000 closure of the Savanna Army Depot, which cost the already-battered region 450 jobs.

In fact, the main fear now about the prison, Hebeler and others said, is that political opposition from Republicans in the U.S. House could derail the opening. An earlier planned sale to the federal government in 2009 stalled over an Obama administration proposal to move terrorist suspects from the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

“We’ve been promised this so many times. We get our hopes up and then they get out the ax and cut our legs out,” said Hebeler, 66, standing outside the prison, which sits among pumpkin fields and next to a village water tower built specifically to supply the complex.

The prison cost $129 million when it was finished in 2001, but state budget crunches prevented it from ever fully opening.

As recently as 2009, the menacing-looking prison — surrounded by two wire fences and guarded by four concrete watchtowers — held only 200 minimum-security state inmates.

Those prisoners were moved out in 2010, taking 75 prison-related jobs with them and leaving the site vacant.

State and federal officials thought they could reach a deal in late 2009, but the proposal to hold suspected terrorists there prompted political objections that blocked the move. Some local residents also worried about their safety if those suspects were transferred to the rural hamlet, which sits along Rte. 84 about a mile from the Mississippi River.

“Some people worried about that,” acknowledged Hebeler, who said he personally wasn’t concerned about the possibility.

He’s toured the prison “10 or 12 times” over the years and said the security is so strong — an inner, electrified fence is 15-feet tall, an outer one coated with rolls of razor wire is 12 feet high — that he never worried escapees could menace local residents.

“With those razor blades on that fence, they’d bleed to death before they’d get out of this field,” Hebeler said.

Durbin and other backers tried to erase safety concerns with the sale this week, noting that treaties bar any U.S. military prisoners — including suspected terrorists — from being housed in federal prisons. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also has publicly vowed not to move any military detainees to the prison, which Durbin and others said would hold only domestic criminals.

But U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia and other House Republicans still blasted the sale, with Wolf saying in a statement he fears it could “set in motion” a plan to close the Guantanamo Bay center and house terrorist suspects in the United States — a claim Durbin dismissed.

“The core of their opposition is over a non-issue,” Durbin said Friday. “Not a single detainee can be transferred there.”

Wolf, who co-chairs the House Appropriations Committee, could attempt to block funding needed to run the prison, though there currently is about $60 million budgeted to upgrade the prison to meet federal standards, transfer prisoners there and begin operating it, a Durbin spokeswoman said.

Wolf couldn’t be reached for comment, but U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling — a Republican whose district includes Thomson — said there likely will be a battle over funding, largely because of resentment that the Obama administration bypassed Congress to complete the sale barely a month before federal elections.

“There are some people real upset about the way this was done,” said Schilling, who nonetheless promised to “fight to get this open.”

Many residents said they don’t care about the political maneuvering, they just want the prison open.

“We need it. We need the jobs,” said 77-year-old Eleanor Torke, who lives near Savanna, north of the prison site.

Though retired now, Torke said she wouldn’t hesitate to work in the prison, which she has toured and described as “beautiful.”

“If I was 20 years younger, I’d get a job there,” she said.

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