‘Gitmo North’ Has Illinois Region Seeing Dollar Signs

BY Dave Gustafson  December 15, 2009 at 3:54 PM EDT

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Tuesday’s announcement that the Obama administration intends to move some Guantanamo Bay detainees to an underutilized prison in rural Illinois has met resistance from congressional Republicans and the largest state employee union.

There are also legal hurdles to clear, the Department of Defense must add extra security at the Thomson Correctional Center and nobody has hazarded a guess as to when the first prisoners would arrive.

But one thing is certain: the residents of Thomson (pop. 600 or so) and the surrounding area expect the project to be an economic windfall despite possible concerns about the new neighbors.

“I’ve talked to probably 15 or 20 people about this,” Dick McLane, a retired businessman in nearby Clinton, Iowa, told the Des Moines Register. “I haven’t heard a single person say they’re worried about a terrorist breaking out or about this area becoming a terrorist target.”

Learn more about the population and the economy in Carroll County, Ill. from our Patchwork Nation project.

The 1,600-cell Thomson supermax prison opened in 2001, but was never fully functional.

Next week, Democratic Illinois State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg is co-chairing a hearing that could start the prison on its path from state to federal ownership and operation. He spoke with The Rundown Tuesday afternoon.

“The state has spent millions of dollars on things like paying to have toilets flushed to make sure the pipes don’t freeze, repairing a portion of the roof, but it’s never been fully in operation,” he said. The reaction locally has been overwhelmingly favorable, he added, saying that it’s expected to have a $1 billion impact in the region. “This area is thirsting for jobs, and it’s a chance for other businesses to serve that facility and its employee population. This would be a welcome development for communities in that region who are seeking to finally have this prison operational.” In a background briefing today, a senior Obama administration official said the Thomson facility will be “[beyond even maximum security](http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=121454635).” After the Defense Department adds additional security around the perimeter, it will be the “most secure facility in the nation,” he said. Of the roughly 3,000 jobs created, about half would go to local residents, he said. Another administration official noted that federal prisons currently hold 340 people connected with cases of international or domestic terrorism. He said that President Obama has no intention of releasing any of the detainees into the United States. If they are moved to Illinois, the detainees would not get visits from friends or family. Rather, they would only be allowed to see their attorneys, law enforcement officials and inspectors from the International Committee of the Red Cross. *Update 5:20 p.m. ET* Russ Simpson, interim executive director for the [Tri-County Economic Development Alliance](http://tcedaonline.com/tcedateam.html), shed a little more light on the anticipated economic impact the beefed-up prison would have on the region. “Unemployment is on the order of 11 percent [in the area],” he said. “It’s been high for many years. They’re saying 3,000 jobs. If it’s half that, we’ll be excited.” The economy around Thomson has suffered since the closure of the [Savanna Army Depot](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Savanna_Army_Depot), which once employed 10,000 people, he said. “Median incomes have continues to decrease. It’s been a snowball effect for many, many years. This is an opportunity to turn this around and once again have some hope,” he said. The [prison sits](http://ow.ly/Mu6V) about a mile north of the Thomson town limits and east of the Mississippi River out of the 100-year flood plain, he said. The region is ready for the first wave of military guards and detainees and a later wave of support staff, workers and businesses. “Because we have seen population decrease and businesses move out, we have some ‘flex’ in our system,” Simpson said. “Our infrastructure is not overloaded: our schools are not full. We have plenty of housing to offer. In a sense, we’re just sitting here waiting and hoping all the ‘flex’ gets used.” As for security concerns, Simpson said: “This is going to be the safest supermax in America. Our fears are minimal.” “Wholly, throughout the geography that we think counts – a 1 ½- to 2-hour driving radius – it’s been largely if not totally bipartisan for federal acquisition (of the prison),” hesaid.