The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

October 6, 2012

Fulton seeks benefits from Thomson prison sale

By Natalie Conrad
Herald Staff Writer

FULTON, Ill. — Schools, businesses and Realtors in the area are looking to reap the economic benefits from the Thomson, Ill., prison sale.

In 2001, when the prison was built, it was expected that Fulton would benefit greatly. Several years later, Fulton could see an impact with the facility promising around 1,100 jobs.

“We can definitely expect some economic development,” City Administrator Randy Balk said. “There should also be more traffic on Route 84.”

The housing market and local businesses also are expected to see the benefits of the new onslaught of jobs and people.

The city hopes to see more development as a result of the facility opening.

“We’ve had some people waiting and watching and entertaining the possibility of locating their business here,” Balk said. “Hopefully they will take advantage of this opportunity.”

Realtors, like Barb Suehl-Janis, will be scrambling to find homes for new residents. A need for new quality housing is crucial with the possibility of more than 1,000 families relocating to the Gateway area, with about 8 percent of the new employees expected to relocate to Fulton, according to a 2010 study by Iowa State University Department of Economics.

Currently there are 22 listings in Fulton, according to Suehl-Janis.

“We have a desperate need for housing,” Suehl-Janis said. “It’s going to be very tough to find homes for all these families.”

These families are looking for new housing, not the many foreclosed properties in need of rehabilitation that exist in the area, Suehl-Janis said.

They are looking for median homes from $100,000 to $150,000 and the higher 7 percent are looking for homes at $200,000 or more, according to Suehl-Janis.

In the last three years, three condos and two homes have been built in Fulton.

“This will provide a boost for the contractors and everyone will see the benefit,” Suehl-Janis said. “We’re all willing to jump up and help.”

Citizens ready to make a move could benefit from the influx of new residents. Houses are expected to sell fast and developers will see benefits, officials say.

Rural developments in Hunter’s Ridge and Penn Rose will see growth, according to Mayor Larry Russell. New city infrastructure improvements and low tax rates will also help draw families to Fulton, Russell said.

“Our sewage and water systems and residential-zoned land is ready for up to 20 percent growth,” Russell said. “We have one of the lowest water, sewer, electric and property tax rate packages in the region. Our quality of life features are positive with a growing tourism trade. We have tax incremental financing, enterprise zone and revolving fund support to help get projects started.”

The River Bend School District is willing and able to accommodate an abundance of new students. The district has been dealing with a declining enrollment for the past 10 years, with an enrollment of 1,146 in 2003 and a present enrollment of 988.

Class sizes at the elementary and middle schools are a little more than state averages and under state averages at the high school.

With academic achievement trends above state averages and a focus on implementing Common Core State Standards in English and Language Arts and Math, the district is poised to provide a competitive learning center for new families to the area, River Bend School District Superintendent Chuck Holliday said.

High school educators also are planning for instructional practice changes that will prepare students for coming Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessments.

“We hope and anticipate employees who relocate to work in the prison will seriously consider locating in our school district,” Holliday said. “We have great communities to live in with a unique blend of small town and rural life with easy access to larger areas for shopping and recreation.”

The continuing decline in state and federal revenues makes financial planning for growth even more difficult for the district. Holliday said the focus for growth would rely on future local revenue increases from new residents and the anticipation of expanding or new businesses while carefully considering how best to use existing revenues in the transition period.

It has been a long road for communities waiting to benefit from the prison and with no clear timeline of the next steps, it is likely to continue to be a lengthy journey to get the facility up and running.

 “We are a bit leary, due to the unusual procedure for how it was bought,” Russell said. “We are hopeful and optimistic for what it means for our future.”