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.
'Best thing that could happen'
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.
'A true Christmas'
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.
"I hope it's a true Christmas," Village President Jerry Hebeler said. "Everybody's been down in the dumps for eight years."
While local officials and many Democratic lawmakers, including Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Gov. Pat Quinn, touted the plan as an economic boon, others warned it would make the state a target for terrorist attacks.
Republican Rep. Mark Kirk, who is seeking Obama's old Senate seat, has lobbied other officials to oppose the plan. On Tuesday, he issued a statement saying the administration has not adequately addressed safety concerns.
"Without a vote, public hearing or detailed plan, the administration is moving quickly to force the citizens of Illinois to accept this unnecessary risk," Kirk said.
But many here do not see it that way.
Target for terrorists?
"There's the political side about whether the Guantanamo detainees should be brought to American soil, but once that argument is settled, we may as well have them here," said Todd Smith, who owns Buck's Barn Golf Resort, a recreational complex about two miles north of the prison with an 18-hole golf course, 53-room hotel and restaurant.
"Any place that would have been a good target for terrorist before won't change on the basis of where the prisoners are being held."
He had shelved plans to expand the business several years ago, but Tuesday's news "gives us a chance to dust those plans off" and maybe build new single-family homes around the golf course to house prison employees.
The Thomson Correctional Center was one of several potential sites evaluated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to house detainees from the Navy-run prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Officials in Standish, Mich., hoped they would get some of the detainees at a maximum-security prison that was being closed to save money, but Michigan never rolled out the welcome mat the way some other states did.
McGinnis, the bar owner, said that if the federal government did not buy the prison, the town "probably would have died."
Lisa Johnson, who helps manage the Station convenience store in Thomson, says economic interests trump any lingering security concerns.
"Everybody's sick and tired of paying taxes on something that's not bringing in any revenue," she said. "Some people are afraid because they use the word terrorist. ... I'm concerned too, but now that the prison is here, fill it up."