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Taking Guantánamo detainees could help hard-hit Michigan town

If guarding the controversial prisoners keeps a Standish, Mich., prison open, many locals are for it.

By Yvonne ZippCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 2009

Standish Max: Michigan plans to close the Standish Maximum Correctional Facility on Oct. 1, for budgetary reasons. Housing Guantánamo detainees here would blunt an exodus of people and jobs from the nearby town. Federal officials toured the facility last month to assess its suitability.

Dan Staudacher/ The Bay City Times/ AP/ File

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Standish, Mich.

The scuttlebutt among residents of this one-stoplight town is not your garden-variety chitchat. Graver matters are at hand.

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Dominating discussion in Standish, Mich., is the prospect that suspected international terrorists at the Guantánamo detention camp in Cuba may, within months, be living two miles down the road at the state prison. Close behind is a countywide jobless rate of 25 percent.

The revelation that Guan­tánamo detainees could be shipped here has caused a buzz around town. But it was not nearly the bombshell that landed in June, when residents learned that Standish Max, as the maximum-security prison is known, would fall victim to the budget ax in Lansing and be closed. As doomsday scenarios go, the economic future without the prison is, for many Standish residents, more frightening than any vague future terrorism threat.

The result is that the city government and many residents are pleased that their close-knit community is on the Obama administration's shortlist as a place to secure at least some of the 228 Guantánamo detainees.

Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, home of the military's only maximum-security prison, is also believed to be under consideration, and it's not known if officials are considering other sites as well.

"We'll persevere and get through it," Mayor Kevin King says of the prison closing. "Getting the detainees," he adds, "would probably make it easier to get through it."

When picturing a site to house suspected jihadists, a camping and fishing haven near Lake Huron is probably not the first image to spring to mind. But local officials point to the prison's 19-year flawless record housing "some really bad actors," in City Manager Michael Moran's words. Taking Guantánamo detainees wouldn't be so different, they say.

"I have no fears of [the detainees'] coming in here. We won't see them," says Ruth Caldwell, owner of Pleasantries Giftshop and vice president of the Chamber of Commerce. "We have had some nasty people there. The guards have done a marvelous job of keeping the community safe. Other than the glow at night, you'd never know [the prison] is there."

In recent interviews, some people did express concern about potential safety issues arising from housing such infamous inmates. But most said that they saw a terrorist attack on their town as a remote possibility and that the biggest threat to the city is economic.

Arenac County already is struggling under a 25 percent unemployment rate. "That's a Depression-era economy," says Mr. Moran. That's before Standish's largest employer is slated to close Oct. 1, which would end 340 prison jobs.

One-quarter of the city budget ($36,000 a month) comes from the prison's water and sewer bill, and the city must repay bonds taken out when the prison was built in 1990. Standish is also concerned about losing as many as 100 children from the schools, as correctional officers leave to work at other prisons. If the prison shuts down entirely, the impact on area restaurants and retailers could be devastating, adds Moran.