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Dying Illinois town would rather get Gitmo prisoners

THOMSON, Ill. — Some folks in this dying Mississippi River town would rather take their chances with suspected terrorists in their back yard than watch neighbors continue to move away in despair over the lack of jobs.

News that the federal government may buy the nearly empty Thomson Correctional Center and use the maximum-security state prison to house Guantanamo Bay detainees has given people in Thomson hope that things might be about to turn around in this woeful town of 450.

"This town is slowly but surely dying off, and I mean that literally because the people that are retired are dying off and there's no young people coming back in to take their place. There's nothing here to draw them," said Richard Groharing, a 68-year-old retired Florida corrections officer who was born in Thomson, a farming community about 150 miles west of Chicago.

The prison was built in 2001 with the promise of thousands of jobs. But because of state budget problems, it has been largely vacant since its completion. It has 1,600 cells, but only about 200 minimum-security inmates and only 82 staff members, according to the state.

The Obama administration wants to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and transfer some terrorism suspects to the United States for trial.

Federal officials inspected Thomson prison Monday and met with state and local authorities.

While Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Sen. Dick Durbin, both Democrats, welcomed the possibility of locking up the detainees at Thomson, several other Illinois lawmakers objected, warning it would make the Chicago area a terrorist target.

But some folks who live in the shadow of the prison don't buy that. If Chicago is a target, they say, it's because it is a big city, not because detainees are held elsewhere in Illinois.

"They're always in jeopardy anyway for attacks," said Denny Percy, a retiree hanging out with his buddies at a bait shop down the road from the prison.

Bait shop owner Todd Baker said a federal takeover of the prison would be good for the town and surrounding Carroll County, where unemployment is 10.5 percent. He said it could spur new housing, gas stations and other businesses that would create jobs and customers for his shop.

The Obama administration has also considered sending Guantanamo detainees to other U.S. locations, including the maximum-security prison in Standish, Mich., where many residents also have welcomed the idea in the hope that it would spur jobs. Officials wouldn't say Monday when a selection will be made.

If Thomson is chosen, Bureau of Prisons director Harley Lappin said Monday, the federal agency would hire 800 to 900 people, including about 250 to 300 from other facilities, to get the system up and running quickly.

Quinn and others estimate a federal takeover would create as many as 3,000 jobs in all, counting the new businesses created.

"I got a feeling that it will wind up being a boon for this town," Groharing said.

Dying Illinois town would rather get Gitmo prisoners 11/16/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 16, 2009 9:23pm]

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