Could jailed detainees save one Illinois town?

THOMSON, Ill. —This town has waited eight years for its prison to open.

Families have come and gone. Shops have expanded, and closed. Roads have been widened, hotels built. And yet the traffic never arrived, the rooms were seldom rented.

Now, most here don't worry much about who will fill the prison — as long as it is filled.

Thomson, population 500, is like many small towns that follow the Mississippi north from St. Louis. Quaint farm houses. Pickups idling outside gas stations. Christmas lights down Main Streets struggling to keep their shops.

Except that Thomson may soon house one of the world's most notorious prisons.

President Obama, aiming to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, has targeted the state's unopened 1,600-bed, maximum security prison here as a new home for about 100 terrorist suspects.

The Thomson Correctional Center sits just a mile outside town, a few football fields' length from the main road, a hail-Mary from the closest homes.

And, for that, the town has fallen under an international spotlight the last month, as those within and without wonder how such a place could even think of hosting such people.

Dissenters have lined up. At a hearing near here last week, mothers mourned their sons and daughters lost in the war. Prison guard union leaders argued that the state needs the space to ease its own prison crowding. Some politicians and conservative activists warned that terrorists may target the region.

Residents in Thomson aren't thrilled about that part, either. But, with a few exceptions, most figure the trade-off is worth it.

Nearly everyone can rattle off the jobs lost around here:

Two grocery stores closed in Thomson. Two taverns on Main. A gas station. A pallet factory. A fastener plant. And the same goes for neighboring Savanna, Ill., —shoe stores, clothing stores, a pizza parlor, a five-and-dime.

And that doesn't include railroad jobs, which have dipped from hundreds to dozens, nor the Army Depot in Savanna that closed nearly 10 years ago after once employing as many as 7,200.

Unemployment hovers near 11 percent. And without jobs, new families aren't moving in, or aren't staying.

"It's dying. This town is dying," said Luanne Bruckner, 60, a sixth-generation resident who traces her roots here to the son of a Revolutionary War soldier. "I don't want to see it go."