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State Opens Door to Sale of Thomson Prison to Federal Government

By Tom Kocal

The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA) held a second public hearing on Wednesday, January 6, in Chicago, the same day that U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) met with local officials, and economic development groups from Carroll County and surrounding counties at Buck’s Barn in Thomson.

Meeting participants in Thomson included Village of Thomson President Jerry “Duke” Hebeler, Sen. Mike Jacobs, Illinois State Police Director Jonathon Moncken, and State Representatives Jim Sacia, Pat Vershoore, and soon-to-be-retired Mike Boland.

COGFA voted 7-4 on Wednesday to accept a recommendation to close the Thomson Correctional Center, declaring the facility “surplus property.” The vote by the bipartisan committee of lawmakers is nonbinding. Gov. Pat Quinn has already said he plans to sell the prison. Budget problems and partisan politics have kept the prison mostly vacant since it was built in 2001.

The COGFA vote took place while the meeting in Thomson was being held. Durbin announced the results of the vote to the large audience of local mayors, police chiefs, county board members, and union representatives.

After the meeting at a press conference, Durbin said he was pleased “that there were two Republican leaders on that commission - State Sen. Dave Syverson from Rockford, and State Representative Richard Myers (R-94) from Macomb - who broke ranks with many in the party who have opposed this, and showed the same political courage that State Rep. Jim Sacia showed earlier.”

Supporters say using the maximum-security facility to house federal prisoners and detainees could create the economic boost promised by Illinois that never materialized. Opponents say moving detainees to Illinois could make the state a terrorist target.

“This is not a partisan issue, and it shouldn’t be,” Durbin continued. “When it comes down to jobs and people going to work, taking a prison that’s been sitting empty for 8 years and using it in an effective way to serve our nation, has nothing to do with a person’s political party.

“After speaking today with Gov. Quinn, who has been behind this from the beginning, and Harley Lappin, head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, our plans are these: If we can move toward transactions being completed early this year for the transfer of this prison from the State of Illinois to the federal government, then we have a very real possibility of actually seeing people coming into this new Thomson Federal Prison and going to work in this calendar year 2010.

“I will be working in Washington for the federal funding for the Bureau of Prisons so that they can complete the work necessary. And we’re also going to work on the military side for the transfer of detainees. We have been told by the administration that the Guantanamo detainees who will be coming here would be fewer than 100 in number, and they would be under the supervision of the Dept. of Defense as they are at Guantanamo today.”

Durbin said there were 2 separate things taking place, with the Bureau of Prisons portion “going forward as quickly as we can reach an agreement with the State of Illinois.”

Durbin added, “The support in that room was from a lot of people who have had a dream for a long, long time, that this Thomson Prison would be an opportunity for employment, and an opportunity for these communities nearby to grow.”

In spite of the fact that the general meeting was “closed to the press,” as notified in the Jan. 5 media advisory, Durbin said, “We are going to be completely open and transparent on this from start to finish as we have been, and that has been the purpose of this meeting today.”

Thomson MtgDurbin etal.tif

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (at podium) addresses the media after Wednesday’s meeting with local officials. Joining Durbin at the press conference were (l to r) Rep. Jim Sacia, Sen. Mike Jacobs, Rep. Pat Vershoore, Rep. Mike Boland, and Thomson Village President Jerry “Duke” Hebeler. Not in photo but present at the press conference was Illinois Sate Police Director Jonathon Monken. Visit www.PACC-News.com for exclusive video of the press conference.

Local politicians comment

Durbin introduced Mayor Hebeler, saying “Come on up and say a few words . . . you got us all started on this!” Hebeler is credited for bringing this issue to the forefront of the Obama and Quinn administrations with a letter he wrote in June, again proposing to sell the prison to the federal government if Illinois was just going to sit on it.

“All I can say is, I won’t believe it until I see the ink dry on the deed,” Hebeler quipped. “But it sounds very good, especially with the vote that took place today in Chicago. I hope everybody will benefit from this, the surrounding communities and counties, and Thomson. I know there is a lot of work ahead, but if everybody sticks together on the right path, I think we will accomplish this. There are still a lot of hard questions to be answered, but we’ve got to do the best of our ability. Like my Dad always taught me, if you can’t do the job right, don’t do it at all.”

Sen. Mike Jacobs (D- Moline), whose 36th District encompasses the Thomson Prison, said “It’s tough to make tough decisions. But I want to tell you, this decision was a no-brainer.”

Jacobs, referring to the “Move Thomson Forward” rally last spring in Thomson, said he stood with Rep. Sacia during the rally, and “apologized to the community, because we didn’t have an answer for opening Thomson. And here we are today with an answer on why and how we are opening Thomson.

“At today’s meeting it impressed me that people have questions, and people have concerns. We want to make sure that local concerns are taken care of. If you have a local concern that may end up hurting Thomson or the area, let me know.

“We’re going to drive a tough bargain,” Jacobs continued. “We’re at the position now where we are at the bargaining table, and we’re going to want some things to make sure that this turns out to be a good thing for Illinois, and my friends in Iowa. Remember, this is not an Illinois project, it’s a federal project.”

Jacobs thanked Representatives Sacia and Verschoore for their leadership and bi-partisan efforts to keep this project moving forward.

Sacia (R-Pecatonica), whose 89th District borders to the east the 71st Representative District where the prison is located, has been a strong advocate for opening Thomson since he was first elected in 2002.

“For those who have chosen to make this a partisan issue, shame on you,” Sacia said. “This is an issue of economic development, of economic impact, of about Northwest Illinois waiting for the past 10 years, when ground was initially broken, and the past 8 years, waiting for the facility to open. Do we need the prison in Illinois? Of course we do. But we’ve all been beating that horse to death for 8 years. We can’t afford to open it.

“And to those fear mongers who would say we are going to transfer the hatred for Gitmo prison internationally, is going to be transferred to Thomson, Illinois, here’s a bulletin: Those people that flew airliners into the Twin Towers hate all of us. We’re infidels. That’s the way they see the world. My 28 years as an FBI agent taught me one thing. We have the finest cooperative effort in the intelligence community and the law enforcement community. I have the utmost faith in their ability to convey any messages of any would-be terrorists wanting to create some type of a cell in northwest Illinois, we would know about it far in advance.

“That cooperative effort between federal, state, county and municipal law enforcement will certainly personify itself as this prison is opened as a federal facility,” Sacia concluded.

Where’s the money?

Several sources have previously indicated that there’s no money to buy the Thomson prison, suggesting it’s unlikely the Cuban detention center at Guantanamo Bay will be closed before 2011. In late December 09, Congress rejected a request for $200 million to cover the purchase of the Thomson Correctional Center—and reports stated the administration won’t likely get another chance to ask for the funds until March of this year.

Various upgrades that’ll take at least 8 months can’t begin until the feds take control of the prison, thus pushing the move of Gitmo prisoners into 2011—more than a year after the Jan. 22, 2010, deadline Obama set when he took office.

“But this (COGFA vote) has accelerated the entire process and begins to paint the picture of ‘real’ possibilities for the Prison,” said Theresa Wittenauer, Blackhawk Hills RC&D in an announcement Friday. “In full coordination with the Tri-County Economic Development Alliance (TCEDA), we want to inform our partners of our intentions to move forward with efforts to coordinate the region’s planning needs.”

Wittenauer urges local municipal leaders, business owners, and economic development representatives, “to take a look at TCEDA’s website, where updates on planning efforts and schedules for upcoming workshops are posted. http://www.tcedaonline.com/investinnorthwest.html. Furthermore, you can access more in-depth information concerning the Preparedness Workshops that have been set for February 25th (for communities) and March 3rd (for business leaders) by clicking on ‘Preparing for the Future’ on the left menu/toolbar.  Here, you will find a breakdown of the information that will need to be inventoried for each community and how we plan to follow through.

“The process is moving quickly and the situation needs realistic strategic planning that cannot be entered into haphazardly,” Wittenauer continued. “We will need your input and support to successfully follow through in this need.  Now is the time to begin carefully planning for success . . . to ensure all communities are prepared to accommodate the needs of the potential prison expansion and economic impact.”

What do meeting participants think?

Diane Komsikey, Executive Director of the Jo-Carroll Depot Local Redevelopment Authority (LRA) and a resident of Lanark in Carroll County, said the most direct path to job creation in the region, and especially in Carroll County, is the federal purchase of the Thomson Prison.

“The Savanna Army Depot employed 7,195 workers, and in the 1950’s was the largest ordnance depot in the nation. From 1961 to 1975 it housed nuclear weapons. I explained to the senator that he could use that as ammunition against their fear-mongering. We’re tired of the fear mongering.”

Komiskey told Durbin during the meeting that the loss of industry and jobs has resulted in people leaving Carroll County to seek employment in urban areas. The county population was 18,963 in 1990, compared with the 2008 estimate of 15,841.

“We need jobs to retain and attract residents, especially young people. In 2008, 20.6% of the population of Carroll County was 65 years or older, compared with 12.2% for the state.

“Although the Dept. of Defense (DoD) expects few of its direct hires to come from the local community, they will be working and spending in the region. Vital to Northwest Illinois is the economic stimulus resulting from two areas: One, the DoD and its expenditures on civilian and military personnel and capital improvements at Thomson; Two, the spending by human rights groups, protesters, and the press.”

Curt Brunner, Political Coordinator for the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters, and a board member of TCEDA, told the Prairie Advocate that “Sen. Durbin met with the Building Trades Union in Rockford this morning to ask about our concerns in the region. We look forward to the opportunities. We are hoping for a project labor agreement. There was one with the state when the prison was built, and we hope that the federal government Bureau of Prisons will also do a project labor agreement. That’s probably our biggest concern.”

Brunner, who calls Carroll County and Mt. Carroll his home, added, “This is the best I’ve felt about the prison in the last 8 years. With COGFA today voting to declare the prison surplus property, I do believe the BoP will take the next step in this process, getting an appraisal as quickly as possible. There was talk about a 2010 opening. It would be late in the year, I’m sure, but we’ve got to remember that it doesn’t have to wait on the detainees. It’s going to be a Federal Prison. Let’s get that part of it started.”

Larry Stebbins, Mayor of Savanna and businessman, owner of Stebbins Appliance in Savanna, got right to the point.

“Durbin said it would open this year. I believe him.”

Video by Tom Kocal Produced by Brent Simmons

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