Gitmo debate vexes Illinois town: Terrorists or joblessness?
By Judy Keen
THOMSON, Ill. — Progress or problems — or both — would accompany terrorism detainees if they're transferred from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a nearly empty state prison here, residents say.
Which outcome is more likely is stirring debate in this village of 550 people that's 150 miles west of Chicago.
"We need the jobs," says Don Baker, 84, who helps run his son Todd's tackle and bait shop. "Things are bad." The unemployment rate in Carroll County, where Thomson is located, is 10.5%.
Shirley Dippel, 64, who works at Gerry's Upholstery, says security concerns trump jobs. "This would make us the No. 1 target on the terrorist list," she says. "All of a sudden, we're the bull's-eye. How are we supposed to feel?"
Federal officials toured the Thomson Correctional Center on Monday to gauge its suitability to house detainees, increasing the buzz here. "Everybody's talking about it," says Bob Bielema, 46, owner of Bielema Auto Repair.
Promises of jobs
Using the prison here for detainees would help President Obama fulfill his promise to close the military facility at Guantanamo. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said fewer than 100 inmates would be moved here if the Federal Bureau of Prisons buys the facility.
Prisons in Colorado and Montana also are being considered, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said. Michael Moran, city manager in Standish, Mich., said Monday it also is a possible choice, the Associated Press reported.
The Thomson prison, completed in 2001, has fewer than 200 minimum-security inmates. It has 1,600 maximum-security cells. The 146-acre site just north of town has a 12-foot fence and a 15-foot electric stun fence.
If the federal government buys the prison, it would house ordinary maximum-security inmates as well as detainees. A White House estimate says the prison would create 2,300 to 3,200 jobs in the area and add up to $1 billion to the local economy in its first four years.
Donna Opheim has heard those sorts of promises before. The Station, the gas station/convenience store/diner she manages, was built in anticipation of the prison's opening and the hundreds of jobs it was supposed to generate. She's still waiting.
More business would be great, says Opheim, 63, but she worries about the effect of newcomers hired by the prison on Thomson's character. "Is our quiet little town going to be able to function like a quiet little town, or are we going to be looking over our shoulders?" she asks.
Thomson has an intermediate school, a library, a railroad depot museum and a few small businesses.
The Mississippi River is just west of town. A sign tells visitors this is "the melon capital" -- a title celebrated by the annual Labor Day melon festival and the red watermelon slice painted on the water tower.
The recession has been hard on Thomson. One of the three convenience stores closed. So did one of the two bars. Bielema says the town is bouncing back, but slowly.
"Anything that will bring jobs to the area can't be all bad," says Jean Bissing, who lives in nearby Mount Carroll.
Still, the potential for security threats causes qualms. "The security issue is the big issue for me," Opheim says. "I'm not so much afraid of the detainees breaking out. It's the people who might be coming in to get them out."
Some Republicans in Illinois' congressional delegation wrote to Obama objecting to bringing detainees here. "As home to America's tallest building, we should not invite al-Qaeda to make Illinois its No. 1 target," it said. The reference was to the Willis Tower, the former Sears Tower.
Todd Baker, 43, says he's certain guards can keep detainees locked up, but he doesn't want Thomson to be a destination for their friends, families and sympathizers.
He wishes the prison would be filled instead with overflow inmates from elsewhere. New prison employees would be needed, he says, which would give his business a boost. His Sunday sales totaled $5.
Like his neighbors, Todd Baker has questions about the detainees, but he also frets that the latest promise of jobs could evaporate: "I worry what will become of us if nothing does happen."