Thomson, Ill. The White House decision to move up to 100 Guantanamo Bay detainees to this dying Mississippi River town has folks here seeing dollar signs, not suspected terrorists.
Many people in this rural community are hopeful that their willingness to house the prisoners in a nearly empty penitentiary will offer an economic boost — helping to ease steep job losses and dwindling tax revenue needed to fix roads and pay for schools.
“This is probably the economic-development opportunity of a lifetime for northwest Illinois, and we intend to take full advantage of it,” said Russ Simpson, who leads an economic-development group for a three-county area that includes tiny Thomson, about 150 miles west of Chicago.
Until now, the expansive Thomson Correctional Center has been a big disappointment in the town of about 450, where there are no stoplights and the two-block business district is lined with old-fashioned buildings that look like they belong on the set of a Western movie.
The prison was built by the state in 2001 with the promise of thousands of jobs, but budget problems prevented it from fully opening. It has 1,600 cells, but currently houses only about 200 minimum-security inmates and 82 staff members, according to the state.
Businesses opened in anticipation of an influx of prison workers and visitors, but they have since closed. Builders canceled plans to build new housing. Neighbors moved away to find better jobs.
The unemployment rate in Carroll County, where Thomson is located, stood at 11.1 percent in October, the latest month for which figures are available. The national average is 10 percent.
“It’s been a big disappointment for eight years. Heartbreak,” said Rick McGinnis, who owns Kyle’s, a bar that has been in his family for 62 years. Now, he says, people will move to the area, put their children in school, pay taxes and buy beer.
“That’s the best thing that could happen to it,” said McGinnis, who remembers the good money his bar made when the prison was being built.
President Barack Obama ordered the federal Bureau of Prisons to buy the prison. The decision is an important step toward closing Guantanamo Bay, which has long been a global symbol of the Bush administration’s approach to national security. The Illinois prison is expected to house both federal inmates and no more than 100 Guantanamo detainees.
But Tuesday’s announcement will not solve all the administration’s Guantanamo-related problems. More than 200 detainees will remain at Guantanamo, and the White House faces other legal issues and potential resistance from Congress.
Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they could not yet lay out a time frame for the transfer of detainees from the Navy-run detention facility to Thomson.
They said the administration would have to work with Congress to amend laws and secure funding before any prisoners are brought to U.S. soil. They would also need to strengthen the prison’s perimeter security.
The officials said military tribunals for potential detainees would be held at Thomson. They also said the facility could house detainees who are ordered to be held indefinitely but cannot be tried.
Federal and state officials estimate the federal takeover will create as many as 3,000 jobs in the area within several years, including an estimated 800 to 900 at the prison and at local businesses that would sprout up as a result.