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Prison holds promise for job-strapped town

'The skin of our teeth'

"I go back and forth," real estate agent Jeannine Mills said. "I would love to see prisoners here. That's why it was built. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with having terrorists imprisoned here. I would like to get more informed, and reassured."

Donna Opheim, manager of the Station diner on the town's three-block business strip, echoes Durbin's argument about jobs.

"We've just been hanging on by the skin of our teeth," Opheim said. "A couple of congressmen are fighting it. Let them come up here and see what it's like."

Thomson, a shrinking town of fewer than 600 not far from Ronald Reagan's boyhood home in Dixon, bills itself on a faded wooden sign as the Watermelon Capital of the World. The prison, surrounded by electrified fence, is just outside town, separated from the Mississippi River by a cornfield and a strip of woods.

Faded expectations

For the past eight years, civic life has been defined by hopes that the prison would open at capacity and frustration when it didn't. The few residents who expressed fears of housing Guantanamo inmates seemed outnumbered.

"If this prison doesn't open, we'll be dying," said Tom Patel, 58, who bought the Executive Inn three years ago, expecting the prison to be in full swing.

Picking up dinner at Dusty's Pizza, retiree Ron VenHuizen said he hopes the prison will provide jobs for his two grandsons, Marines returning from Afghanistan. "The area needs a big boost," he said. He said that he and his wife, Marva, worry about an attack on nearby nuclear power plants or Lock and Dam 13 on the Mississippi. But if it's a risk, VenHuizen said, it's a reasonable one.

"There's danger everywhere," he said. "I could walk here in the street and get run over."

Pam Brown, Chamber of Commerce executive director in neighboring Savanna, said she has heard nothing that the area cannot handle. She recalled when bombs were manufactured at the Savanna Army Depot, now shuttered.

"Having a bomb go through your home town is something we grew used to. I'm not sure which would have posed the greatest danger -- terrorists or bombs," Brown said, adding that the prison was built to house dangerous criminals. "They don't send good people there, period. It's people you wouldn't want as a neighbor."

Federal authorities toured the prison Monday and discussed the prospects with local officials and business leaders. Locals were told that no friends or relatives would be permitted to visit prisoners and the detainees would not be released into the community, said Julie Hansen, president of the Thomson Chamber of Commerce.

"My first thought was, 'Oh my goodness, that's scary,' but I learned a lot of things at the meeting," Hansen said. "Terrorists already exist around the country and are being housed in federal prisons all over. They talked about previous wars where there were Nazis brought here. This isn't a first-time situation."

But confidence that the Obama administration will choose the town and the pieces will fall into place is decidedly muted. For the hard-luck town by the cornfields, there are other ways, too, that this isn't a first-time situation.

"It's been years and years of disappointment," Hansen said. "The comment I hear repeatedly is, 'I'll believe it when I see it.' "

Lydersen reported from Thomson, Ill.


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