Community welcomes news of 1,100 jobs

Posted Online: Oct. 02, 2012, 9:43 pm
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By Eric Timmons,
THOMSON -- Mayor Jerry "Duke" Hebeler had stopped telling people he was from Thomson when he traveled away from home to avoid having to answer questions about the empty prison on his doorstep.

But on Tuesday, when word came down that the sale to the federal government finally was going through, he stood a little taller.

Thomson Correctional Center was built in 2001 at a cost of $140 million, but the state didn't have the money to open it. The prison has sat largely empty since then, frustrating Mayor Hebeler and others who longed to see its promise of economic revitalization for the region fulfilled.

Now -- after Tuesday's sale announcement -- the day the prison could finally open with 1,100 well-paying jobs is tantalizingly close.

Years ago, several new businesses sprouted up in Thomson with the belief they could cash in on the jobs the prison would generate, said Zendal Zendali. Almost three years ago, he bought the Sunrise Restaurant less than a mile from the prison.

On Tuesday, he shared that, since then, he's been praying "day and night" for the prison to open.

"Believe me, business has been hard," said Mr. Zendali, whose Tuesday customers included Gov. Pat Quinn and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., after the prison announcement.

"The whole town has been waiting for this," Mr. Zendali said. "The population is only about 600, so it's going to triple in size."

State Rep. Rich Morthland, R-Cordova, said federal prison bosses discourage officers from living too close to where they work. Instead, he said they suggest a 30-minute drive to give officers time to "decompress" from the prison atmosphere.

That could mean upper Rock Island County may see significant benefits from the opening of the prison, he said, while many local businesses stand to gain customers.

Ed Olds, of Mount Carroll, a 25-minute drive from Thomson, said the benefits of 1,100 new federal jobs would be widespread.

"This is huge," he said. "If we even got half the jobs they are talking about it would be great.

"This was long overdue and was held up by political wrangling," Mr. Olds said. "But now the schools, businesses and everybody will benefit."

When fully operational, the prison will have an estimated economic impact of $200 million annually for the region, said U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Colona. But not all local residents are enamored with the idea of having a maximum-security federal prison in their back yard.

"I wish it was a factory rather than a prison," said retiree Janet St. Ores, of Thomson. "But right now we'll take whatever we can get,"

She also questioned the timing of Tuesday's announcement.

"With the election coming, the timing was great to pull the rabbit out of the hat," Ms. St. Ores said.

Carroll County Sheriff Jeff Doran said it was a "happy day" for a region hit economically when the nearby Savanna Army Depot closed in 2000 after a Base Realignment and Closure process.

Gov. Quinn said jobs created in Thomson would benefit "hard working people" in Illinois and Iowa. He noted the $165 million Illinois got for the prison also will help pay some overdue bills.

Sen. Durbin said it costs about $800,000 annually to maintain the empty Thomson prison.

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