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Thomson Residents Want Gitmo Detainees At Prison: 'It Will Wind Up Being A Boon For This Town'

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THOMSON, Ill. — Some folks in this dying Mississippi River town would rather take their chances with suspected terrorists in their backyard than watch their 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 are held there, and there are 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 U.S. for trial. On Monday, federal officials were at the Thomson prison to inspect it and meet with state and local authorities.

While Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Sen. Dick Durbin, both Democrats, welcomed the possibility of locking up Guantanamo detainees at Thomson, several other Illinois lawmakers objected, warning that 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.

Baker said it could spur new housing, gas stations and other businesses that would create jobs and customers for his shop, which is stocked with fishing supplies and serves as a local hangout.

The Obama administration has also considered sending Guantanamo detainees to other locations in the U.S., 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 people 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.

However, no hiring preference will be given to locals, and new hires must be under 37 and will be required to be or become federal law enforcement officers. Lappin said the agency would want Illinois Department of Corrections workers on staff but they would have to compete for those jobs.

"We need this to help our community, our communities around us and us are hurting big," said Thomson Village President Jerry Hebeler after a private meeting with federal officials and community members.

But some in Thomson worry that locals who already work at the prison could lose their jobs.

Durbin accused lawmakers critical of the proposal of fearmongering and political posturing. He said that fewer than 100 of the inmates would be from Guantanamo Bay, and that the government would build an extra perimeter fence around the prison.

"This would be the most secure prison in the United States of America," the senator said.

And if any of the detainees or other inmates at the prison were to escape, some Thomson residents know how to protect themselves.

"I've got plenty of weapons and ammunition at my house," said Dave Lawton, a 62-year-old retiree.

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Associated Press writers Sophia Tareen in Chicago and John Flesher in Traverse City, Mich., contributed to this report.

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