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Dying Illinois town looks to government's millions — and Gitmo detainees

The town of Thompson, Ill., widened roads in anticipation of a correctional center opening. The state never found the funds. President Barack Obama now wants to hold terror suspects there.

Associated Press

The town of Thompson, Ill., widened roads in anticipation of a correctional center opening. The state never found the funds. President Barack Obama now wants to hold terror suspects there.

THOMSON, Ill. — This town has waited eight years for its prison to open.

Families have come and gone. Shops have expanded, and closed. Roads have been widened, hotels built. And yet the traffic never arrived, the rooms seldom rented.

Now, most here don't worry much about who will fill the prison — as long as it gets filled.

Thomson, with a population of less than 600, is like many small towns that follow the winding Mississippi north of St. Louis. Quaint farm houses. Pickups idling outside gas stations. Christmas lights down Main Streets struggling to keep their shops.

Except that Thomson may soon house one of the world's most notorious prisons.

President Barack Obama, aiming to close the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention center, has targeted the state's unopened 1,600-bed, maximum security prison here as a new home for about 100 terrorist suspects.

The Thomson Correctional Center sits just a mile outside the village, a few football fields' length from the main road, a Hail Mary from the closest homes.

And, for that, the town has fallen under an international spotlight the last month, as those within and without wonder how such a place could even think of hosting such people.

Dissenters have lined up. At a hearing near here this month, mothers mourned their sons and daughters lost in the war. Prison guard union leaders argued that the state needs the space to ease its own prison crowding. Some politicians and conservative activists warned that terrorists may target the region.

Residents in Thomson aren't thrilled about that part, either. But, with a few exceptions, most figure the trade-off is worth it.

Nearly everyone can rattle off the jobs lost around here:

Two grocery stores closed in Thomson. Two taverns on Main. A gas station. A pallet factory. A fastener plant. And the same goes for neighboring Savanna, Ill. — shoe stores, clothing stores, a pizza parlor, a five-and-dime.

And that doesn't include railroad jobs, which have dipped from hundreds to dozens, nor the Army Depot in Savanna that closed nearly 10 years ago after once employing as many as 7,200.

"That's a small-town melody across the central states," said Jon Whitney, who publishes a regional newspaper, the Carroll County Review. It represents the decline as well, consolidated from four town papers years ago.

Unemployment hovers near 11 percent. And without jobs, new families aren't moving in or aren't staying.

"It's dying. This town is dying," said Luanne Bruckner, 60, a sixth-generation resident who traces her roots here to the son of a Revolutionary War soldier. "I don't want to see it go."

And, worse for some, they can't keep their children around. Bruckner has four. One is in New York, another in Houston. The closest is in Moline, Ill., an hour down the road. Only her youngest, a college student, was home the week before Christmas.

"I'd just love to see families stay together," Bruckner said.

So, the idea of a new prison represented hope here about a decade ago. The state built it specifically to help cover the loss of the Army depot jobs.

And, for a while, the prison did bring work. Roads were widened and gas stations expanded in preparation for the increase in traffic. Shops opened. The Bruckners, for instance, built a hotel and a restaurant on One Mile Road, 500 yards from the prison, and housed workers and government employees during construction.

The village took out loans to build a sewer and water system.

Over the years, the new lockup even trained and hired guards.

But the prison never opened. Locals count four times that it almost did. Each time, the state couldn't find the money.

No one knows just what will happen in the coming months.

The Obama administration must first find the millions of dollars it will need to buy the prison from Illinois, add a perimeter fence and turn it into a "supermax" facility.

Congress must pass a law allowing the detainees to be held in the states. It could be 2011 before such details are ironed out.

But the potential is so promising.

A preliminary analysis released by the state estimates a shot of $790 million to $1.09 billion into the local economy over the first four years, between 2,340 and 3,250 ongoing jobs, new residents and a halving of the Carroll County unemployment rate.

Still, some do not think it's worth it.

Carla Spencer, a cashier at the Station, a convenience store on the main highway, said she never wanted any prison in Thomson.

"So we packed up and moved," Spencer said. She's back now. Her dad died, and she's settling his estate. But she's not sure whether she'll stay.

Others fume at the prospect of having Guantanamo detainees on American soil. And sometimes harsh words are directed at leaders like village president Jerry Hebeler, from those befuddled at his support of the idea.

But most here say they'll take the controversial prisoners, as long as they get the jobs that come with them.

"We have no jobs around here," said Jerry Bonjour, 71, from neighboring Savanna. "Young people are leaving. We need jobs."

Dying Illinois town looks to government's millions — and Gitmo detainees 12/26/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 26, 2009 10:31pm]
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