Week of December 6, 2009
Snapshot from the Field
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Who'll Get the Gitmo Guys?
by JACK LYNE, Site Selection
Executive Editor of Interactive Publishing
The Top Contenders for 'the Gitmo Relo'
Ostensibly, this looks like one whopper of a site selection. Looks like the stuff that business recruiters' dreams are made of.
Consider, for example, this scenario: If this project ends up at one of the contending sites in northwest Illinois, it will send these hefty jolts shooting through the local economy:
Big numbers, those. But what they add up to is one highly combustible mix. That's because this site selection will begin the relocation of inmates now held at the controversial prison complex in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. So, yes, this project carries a fat load of economic development dynamite; but it also packs a big shot of political nitroglycerin.
"If your administration brings Al Qaeda terrorists to Illinois, our state and the Chicago metropolitan area will become ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots, recruitment and radicalization," U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk wrote last month in a letter to President Barack Obama.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, however, sees the project in a vastly different light. The Illinois senator is unabashedly excited about the possibility of the Gitmo relocation coming to the Land of Lincoln.
"In the midst of this recession, this is the good news we have been hoping for and waiting for, and now we have to capitalize on it," Durbin said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a historic economic boost."
But while Gitmo still sharply polarizes opinions, it's easy to forget one salient fact: The decision to shut down Guantanamo Bay was actually made 10 months ago. Obama issued an executive order on Jan. 22, 2009, directing that "the detention facilities at Guantanamo . . . shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than, one year from the date of this order."
Small Towns, Big Welcomes
No one in the Obama administration, however, now believes that the original timetable for the Gitmo shutdown is achievable. The government, in fact, is still trying to nail down the specifics of where the Gitmo detainees will be housed. And that gap between the Gitmo announcement and actual implementation has added fuel to charges that the shutdown plan is ill-advised and half-baked.
"The president issues an edict that he will close Gitmo without a plan for the detainees there," Dan Proft, a Republican running for the Illinois governorship, said last month. "Instead of keeping suspected terrorists off domestic soil, the president and Gov. (Pat) Quinn are poised to bring to Illinois those with the ability to operate beyond the walls of any prison."
Something quite different, however, is happening out in the heartland. Instead of fuming over the Gitmo shutdown, some small U.S. towns are avidly hoping that the transplanted prisoners come to their communities.
That big welcome has sounded out from little places like Florence, Colo. (population 3,600); Hardin, Mont. (population 3,300); and Standish, Mich. (population 1,500). And then there's Leavenworth, Kan., with its 74,000 residents ranking as the comparative megalopolis in this site-selection competition.
But it's the smallest of all the contenders tiny Thomson, Ill., population 559 that's emerged as the leading candidate for Gitmo relocations. The Illinois site's prospects really began to heat up about a month ago. On Nov. 16, officials from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and the Illinois Department of Corrections toured the Thomson Correctional Center, joined by Democratic lawmakers from Illinois and Iowa.
"I think the project is ours to lose," Durbin told reporters after the tour in Thomson, which lies about 150 miles (242 kilometers) west of Chicago. "We really have the best offer on the table, but the final decision has yet to be made by the administration."
Five days later, Thomson's candidacy for the Gitmo project got another boost. The President's Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) on Nov. 21 issued a report on "the likely economic impacts on the local economy of the purchase and modification of the state prison in Thomson, Ill." Significantly, that study was the first analysis of a potential Gitmo relocation site that's been released to the public.
'Two Entirely Separate Facilities Side by Side'
The CEA's report outlines in broad strokes how the real estate deal would be structured with the Thomson facility. If that maximum-security prison is chosen to house some of the relocated Gitmo prisoners, the federal government would "purchase and modify" the state-owned complex. The BOP would then occupy 75 percent of the facility. The federal prison board would lease the remaining 25 percent to the DOD to house the Gitmo detainees.
"In essence, DOD and BOP will operate two entirely separate facilities side by side," the report explains.
The DOD portion of the complex would house as many as 200 of the Gitmo transfers; the BOP section would house 1,500 federal prisoners. The Thomson facility would be upgraded to federal standards for "supermax" prisons, the analysis notes. The DOD is projecting that it will spend up to $200 million in upgrading its portion of the complex.
"This would be the most secure prison in the United States of America," Durbin asserted.
The relocation of the Gitmo detainees won't set any precedents in the federal or state prison systems. Some 340 inmates linked to international terrorism are already housed in the U.S. prison system; none of those prisoners has ever escaped. Thirty-five of those inmates with terrorism links are housed in federal prisons in Illinois.
The CEA analysis projects that a federal prison in Thomson would have a "large and immediate direct effect" on the area's economy.
'Community Needs This'
Local residents wouldn't be given preference in hiring, the report says. DOD employees, most of them uniformed military, would fill from 1,000 to 1,500 of the Illinois facility's jobs, the report explains. But the CEA analysis notes that "current local residents will be excellent candidates for 1,240 to 1,410 of [the prison's] jobs."
That would be hugely welcome news for northwest Illinois. In Carroll County, where the federal complex would be located, unemployment is running at 10.5 percent. Unemployment is also high in the nearby Illinois counties of Lee (10.9 percent), Rock Island (9.5 percent), and Whiteside (10.9 percent), while Jo Daviess County's rate is 8.1 percent.
Consequently, the CEA analysis projects a deep local-area labor pool: "We estimate that nearly 17,000 people are currently unemployed in these counties. . . . Commuting times from the largest population centers in these counties to Thomson range from 20 minutes to a little over one hour. Thus, it is likely that people in these counties will be willing to work in Thomson and its environs."
Salaries at the Thomson complex would make the commute worthwhile.
"Correctional officers will have an annual salary in the first year, including benefits, of $82,000," says the CEA report. "This salary will rise to $92,300 by the fourth year."
Good jobs like those trump any fears the Gitmo transfers may stir up, Thomson's community leaders contend.
"We need this to help our community," Thomson Village President Jerry Hebeler said on Nov. 16 after meeting privately with federal BOP and DOD officials. "Our communities around us and us are hurting big.
"When you hear the word terrorist, even I flare up a bit," Hebeler continued. "But after I heard what they had to say about security, I really feel like I can rest easy. I am not going to chase jobs that put in jeopardy the safety and security of my friends."
The Gitmo project has focused a great deal of attention on the small burgh of Thomson.
NIMBY Sentiments Scarce
Local economic development officials, however, have apparently gone mum about the venture. The SiteNet Dispatch repeatedly requested an interview with the Tri-County Economic Development Alliance (TCEDA), the four-year-old entity that represents Carroll, Jo Daviess and Whiteside counties.
But TCEDA never replied to repeated interview requests. (The group is possibly gun-shy after some critical press accounts including one that was headlined "Welcome to the Terrorists-for-Jobs Exchange.")
But the media glare may not hurt Thomson's business prospects and it might even help them, one site-selection consultant believes.
"I don't see the Gitmo move keeping out other industries that would consider the county," WDG Consulting Principal Dennis Donovan tells The SiteNet Dispatch. "In my view, the presence of a correctional facility in a smaller community would not impact businesses moving to the area except for headquarters and R&D.
"And even though Thomson might hold convicted terrorists," Donovan adds, "I am not convinced this would dissuade mission-critical operations like data centers from locating in the area. In fact, Carroll County could use the Gitmo relocation to create a marketing campaign transforming a perceived negative into a positive."
The TCEDA did go on the record last month to formally endorse the project.
"TCEDA fully supports the purchase and occupation of the Thomson Correctional Center by the Department of Defense and the Bureau of Prisons," TCEDA Interim Executive Director Russ Simpson wrote in a Nov. 23 letter of support sent to Sen. Durbin. "Several thousand jobs will obviously have a staggeringly positive impact on our northwest Illinois geography and beyond," added Simpson, who's also senior vice president of economic development and member services for Jo-Carroll Energy.
The Carroll County Board has also passed a resolution of support for establishing a federal prison at the Thomson Correction Center.
That kind of strong local support is a very large consideration in locating penal facilities. Prisons have an enduring power to generate strong feelings of NIMBY Not in My Backyard.
"The arguments for and against a facility like the Gitmo project may be dominated by political and non-economic considerations," Andy Mace, principal consultant with Cushman & Wakefield Global Consulting, tells The SiteNet Dispatch. "So the importance of community support is elevated. Instead of technical or cost-based analyses, the sway of public opinion may ultimately drive decision-making."
The 1,600-cell Thomson Correctional Center is a story in itself. That eight-year-old maximum-security facility has a curious stop-and-go history with much more stopping than going.
'We've Got Melons,
Bring Us the Felons'
Prison construction was completed in 2001. But state budgetary woes stalled its opening. So for more than five years, the $145-million complex stood totally empty. Only in 2006 did the state finally move about 200 prisoners into the Thomson facility's much smaller minimum-security section.
That created about 75 jobs at the complex. But that was far short of the 700 positions that state officials initially projected for the Thomson Center.
That shortfall in jobs sent a negative ripple coursing through the economy of the little town that calls itself "the Melon Capitol of the World." As prison construction neared completion, a number of new businesses opened in Thomson. But they waited in vain for the surge in demand that the Thomson Center was supposed to stir up. Now, many of those new operations have closed.
Still, local residents have refused to abandon hope. The Thomson-area community has held several rallies calling for the start-up of the entire Thomson facility. The most recent gathering on April 5 generated this memorable battle cry: "We already have the melons, now bring us the felons."
With the prospect of the Gitmo relocation, Thomson is getting another tantalizing peek at better times. Moreover, the federal prison's 3,000-plus projected jobs would quadruple the state prison's predicted employment. That big gob of jobs could, at last, generate a major spike up in the area's economy.
"In addition to the facility's direct employment, the Gitmo relocation would increase demand for various services like medical, professional, food, mental health, transportation and communications," says Mace. "And there would be increased demand for utilities, housing, buildings and infrastructure as well. Those elements lead to sustained economic activity and development."
But federal officials still haven't decided where the Gitmo prisoners will be relocated. A decision on the Thomson site will be made in four to six weeks, according to officials with the Obama administration.
'No Perfect Location'
But if the Thomson project goes forward, that may mean another delay in implementing the Gitmo relocation. The sale of a state-owned property in Illinois must go through a number of sequential steps.
First, the governor must give written notice that he or she wants to sell the state property, and then state officials must declare it surplus. The property must then be offered to local governments to determine if they wish to buy it. After that, the property must be appraised. And, finally, the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (CGFA) looks at the sale to ascertain if the transaction is worthwhile. The CGFA, however, can't make its determination until it's held formal hearings that must include an assessment of the sale's economic impact.
And while the sale is trudging through all those steps, the Illinois Department of Corrections must conduct its own economic impact analysis.
Democratic state legislators have indicated that they'll try to speed up the sale. State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, who co-chairs the CGFA, says that he will try to initiate hearings on selling the Thomson Center by late December.
In contrast, Republicans from the Illinois General Assembly are working to slow down the Thomson Center's sale. House Republican Leader Tom Cross on Nov. 25 sent a letter to House Speaker Michael Madigan urging that a bipartisan committee study the Thomson prison sale. Cross called for "an informed debate . . . a calm and nonpartisan inquiry into the facts and assumptions behind this proposal and an inquiry into the validity of predictions, generated by the governor's office, that this transaction would benefit the people of Illinois."
Meanwhile, folks in northwest Illinois are still wondering whether the benefits that the Thomson prison once promised might finally come to fruition.
"For an area that's somewhat economically challenged and where citizens support a project, state officials should not oppose it unless there is an overwhelming, compelling and quantifiable reason," says Donovan. "I can not think of such a reason for the Gitmo transfer to Thomson."
The Gitmo relocation, however, carries so much political freight that any site that's selected will surely spark a firestorm of intense debate.
"For this genre of facilities, there is no perfect location," says Mace. "Tradeoffs must be weighed and made. In addition to the traditional site selection factors, it would seem appropriate to weigh this question: 'If not here and now, then when and where?' "
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