By Charlene Bielema
A little more than 14 years ago, an announcement was made that was predicted to change the future of Thomson, Ill.
Then-Gov. James Edgar had arrived in town to make it official — Thomson was to become the site of the state’s newest correctional center.
It was a shock to residents in the area, first because just months earlier it had been announced the prison would be located at the former site of the Savanna Army Depot near Hanover, Ill., just north of Thomson. The depot had been closed in 1995 by the federal government but there was hope that location could be used to house a new maximum-security state prison. But a struggle between state officials and environmentalists who said there were rare plants on the land led Edgar’s administration to look at Thomson as an alternate site.
So three months after the declaration was made that a prison was going to be built at the depot, Edgar made a trip to Thomson to announce it was instead going to be constructed there. Many thought that for Thomson, the planned prison was the equivalent of being a lottery winner. Businesses expanded and new ones were built to prepare for the expected influx of people, not only those who would work at the 1,600-bed facility, but those who would be coming to town to visit inmates.
But here we are 14 years later, and the prison’s expected impact has not materialized.
That’s because while the prison’s construction was completed in 2001 at a cost of $140 million, sadly, the state never had funds to completely utilize it. In fact, every year when the state released its proposed budget, funds weren’t earmarked for the prison’s opening, much to the dismay of local officials and business owners, some of whom took a financial risk of investment and lost.
While the prison did partially open in the mid-2000s and housed some prisoners, they were later shuttled out as the state worked to broker a sale of the prison to the federal government based on talks between the town’s village board president and U.S. Sen Dick Durbin of Illinois.
That has not been a smooth course there either: talk that the prison could be used to house Guantanamo Bay prisoners led to declarations and promises by President Barack Obama and his administration that they would not end up there. And while those promises had been made, there was resistance in Congress that they are not enough and that opening the prison wrongfully puts it ahead of other facilities that should be opened first.
Finally, after three years of discussion, state officials this month announced the prison was sold to the federal government at a cost of $165 million. No date has been set for its opening since money will have to be appropriated to upgrade the facility and that work will have to be done before it is ready for prisoners.
But the good news is that in the end, it could be Thomson really did in fact win the lottery: If officials’ predictions come true, the prison’s presence will create more than 1,100 jobs when it is fully operational, generate more than $122 million in operating expenditures, $19 million in labor income and $61 million in local business sales.
Those economic benefits can’t come soon enough for those who fought for the construction of the prison and others who look forward to the development it will bring not only for that village but for surrounding towns that will see new residents and growth in their schools and economies.
In fact, many of the councils and school boards that we cover in the past few weeks are once again talking about the impact it could bring to their towns and how to best prepare for it.
It is talk that makes us hopeful for the future of our area. Our greatest hope is that the work of those at the beginning of this saga and the continued persistence of area officials will pay off and will lead to an economic dream come true for our region.
Charlene R. Bielema has been employed with the Clinton Herald since June 1995. She has been the Herald’s editor since 2002.