Light At The End Of Tunnel For Thomson Opening

Feb 11, 2013

Credit Mike Moen

Federal officials are taking initial steps in their plans to open the Thomson Correctional Center. They say they’re eager to activate the modern, but little-used facility, which was sold by the state of Illinois last fall. As the process unfolds, people in and around Thomson are guarded in their optimism about the economic jolt the prison is expected to provide.

The Thomson Correctional Center is situated in far northwest Illinois, along the border with Iowa. For more than a decade, communities in these parts have been waiting to reap the economic benefits of the prison. Or, as Randy Balk puts it, they’ve been strung along.

“I think because we have been trained almost to not really have this happen” Balk said.

Balk is the city administrator in Fulton, a community of more than three-thousand people just south of Thomson. He’s referring to the long period when there were no serious plans to fully utilize the prison. Built in 2001, the facility has seen very limited usage, because the state never had enough money to make it fully operational. And when the Obama administration first expressed interest in acquiring Thomson, a lengthy and highly-publicized battle ensued in Washington over the idea of using the correctional center to house detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But now, the plan is to use Thomson to help ease crowding at other maximum security prisons. With the sale to the feds complete, the Bureau of Prisons is starting to get the ball rolling when it comes to activation.

Randy Balk says that’s good because with an estimated 11-hundred new correctional jobs on the horizon, his city could use some help in making sure the population stays at a healthy enough level.

“From 2000 to 2010, the school enrollment dropped by 250 students. So we, like a lot of other communities, are becoming an older community and need to find some way of attracting younger families back” Balk said.

At the same time, Balk acknowledges there’s still some doubt in the community that Thomson will open anytime soon. But he says in his role, he’s starting to feel more optimistic given some of the signals this area is receiving. That includes plans to place two Bureau of Prisons officials at Thomson in early April to survey certain maintenance needs.

Like Fulton officials, Thomson’s village president Jerry Hebeler is cautiously optimistic about what lies ahead. He says the vacant site is a constant reminder of unfinished business for the village.

“I had six goals when I started. I got em’ all completed but the prison” Hebeler said.

Hebeler says his town of 600 people won’t fill many of the jobs the prison will create. He says they’re more focused on what kind of revenue will be generated. Hebeler says village coffers have run dry after years of pinning their economic hopes on the correctional center opening.

“We’re broke. We spent a lot of money to keep up stuff and everything else” Hebeler said.

James Traver works at the Heirloom Market and Café in Thomson. He says he has mixed feelings about the situation.

“We’re excited about the possibility of a lot more personnel coming into the area. The café we’re hoping will have a surplus at lunch time and dinner time. At the same time, I don’t wanna lose that small town feel”

While people form opinions about the new future for the prison, there is still no clear timeline as to when it will officially open, despite some activity at the federal level.

Currently, there is no money in the federal budget for Thomson. Democratic Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, who represents the area, says they expect to see some funding when President Obama unveils his spending proposal in the coming weeks.

As for any lingering doubt about the changes in store for the region, Bustos says the promise of hundreds of jobs should be embraced:

“They’re good jobs. They’re good paying jobs. You can support a family on jobs like these. And I think it’s hard to argue with the fact that this is gonna be a major economic boom to the region” Bustos said.

The Bureau of Prisons says the starting salary for a correctional officer can vary. For first time applicants, it can range from 38 to 43,000 dollars. The Bureau says when activating a prison, the goal is to have 60-percent of their hires from the local area.

For the village of Thomson and surrounding communities, the long wait for those jobs and the economic activity they’re expected to create might soon be over.