The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

January 17, 2014

Prison news feels different this time

By Scott Levine
Herald Associate Editor

---- — I don't blame people for being cautious this week regarding the most recent developments with the Thomson, Ill., prison.

It's not like we haven't heard this story before.

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos announced this week that money is included in the $1 trillion bill making its way through Congress. It appears likely the bill will pass on bi-partisan support, meaning this is another step in the arduous process of maximizing the prison's full potential.

Sure, we've been promised a lot before, especially when the prison was built in 2001. Even since 2008, when I came to Clinton, the Thomson prison has dominated the headlines, and little has been done to make it fully operational.

But this news seems slightly different.

President Barack Obama will likely sign the legislation, meaning there will at least be some funds awarded to the prison.

That's great news.

What's not so great is that no one knows exactly how much money is being allocated to the facility.

Officials have said renovations will cost $25 million, and another $170 million will be needed for equipment and staffing the prison.

So, if the bill only releases $5 million, then the step being taken isn't as great as once perceived.

But if the money included in the bill takes up a big chunk of the $195 million needed to make the prison operational, then it appears the area is finally headed in the right direction.

The facility is likely to create 1,100 jobs, and according to a 2010 study, 35 percent of those employees would locate in Clinton.

Another 8 percent would live in Fulton, Ill., 6 percent in Thomson, and 5 percent in Clinton County outside of Clinton, as estimated by the study.

If we take the study as reality, that means 54 percent of the 1,100 employees would buy or rent homes, purchase groceries and contribute to the tax base of our area. And this doesn't take into account the amount of jobs created because of the influx of people.

If we assume that each job produces a family of two, that means 1,188 people would move into the area if the prison opened, if the study was correct.

That's a major impact. An influx of more than 1,000 people to any geographical area would be a major highlight for anyone, and for an area that seems like it's gaining steam in realizing its potential, it would be another boon to the local economy.

However, it's difficult to get out of your seat and cheer the recent step forward amid all the failed promises of the past. The potential for this area is great, but too many people have been there before. Housing developments, businesses, cities and schools have banked on the prison's impact over the last decade, only to be let down again and again.

But this seems different. And even with funding, it appears the prison wouldn't open for another two years, giving cities like Clinton and Fulton an opportunity to make plans for more housing, which is desperately needed if the area wants to compete with larger cities in this region.

For right now, it's likely best to take the cautiously optimistic route in order to keep your sanity. There have been several steps during the past few years that have indicated a positive direction for the prison.

Let's hope those steps eventually become enough that we see more footprints in this area.

Scott Levine is the associate editor of the Clinton Herald. He can be reached at scottlevine@clintonherald.com.