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Small Illinois town willing to be next Guantanamo

President Obama wants to ship Guantanamo Bay detainees to a rural Illinois state prison. Why are locals welcoming the detainees?

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Liotta called Guantánamo "a recruitment tool" for terrorist organizations and said its closure and the subsequent transfer of detainees to Thomson will eliminate it as a stigma for "people who have not yet made up their mind about Al Qaeda."

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Activists from local "tea party" and veterans' groups denounce the idea of bringing 100 to 150 terrorist detainees here, which they say would be a threat to national security and an insult to those fighting the war on terror.

Some say risk outweighs benefit

"Not one job [gained from the prison move] is worth losing one American life," says Beverly Perlson, founder of the Band of Mothers, a group advocating for troops who've served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Mrs. Perlson, who lives about 115 miles away in Aurora, Ill., calls the Thomson site "an easy target" for terrorists to attack.

"They couldn't get close to Gitmo, but they can get close to this place," she says. "My mind goes on and on with the problems, the dangerousness of what they want to do."

But for many residents in Thomson and the surrounding towns of Carroll County (population 15,841), economics outweighs the fear of the unknown regarding Guantánamo prisoners.

Rural beauty may draw Chicago tourists to drive two hours to hike the palisades in the local state park or go antiquing in downtown Savanna, but the local economy is in peril.

In 2009, unemployment rose to 11.6 percent. Nursing homes, school districts, tourism, and retail businesses are taking up some of the slack that manufacturing and local agriculture left behind. For Bonnie Foust, village president of Shannon, the prospect of a federal prison jump-starting the economy is "better than nothing."

Ms. Foust says the main concern her constituents have is that their county will continue to decline – a reality she says trumps imagined fears that come with lodging suspected terrorists in their backyard.

"We have lived under fear for so many years – the fear of everything. I have people afraid of losing homes, afraid of losing jobs, and those are very tangible and very real things at this moment," she says.

Carroll County is not just starved economically; it's aging – and fast.

Norman Walzer, a senior research scholar at the Center for Gov­ern­mental Studies at Northern Illinois Uni­ver­sity, says that while the county population declined 5 percent between 2000 and 2009, there was a 20.9 percent drop in residents under 20 and a 24 percent drop among those ages 30 to 44 – a snapshot of young families with children moving elsewhere in their prime working years.

In Lanark, a bucolic town marked by vacant homes and many elderly residents, J.L. and Kim Hunter say their own children and those of others have no choice but to move away once they reach adulthood.

"There's no jobs around here for young people," says J.L., who works at Honeywell as a design technician.

Kim, a secretary at a home for the developmentally disabled, says she "definitely will check into" job opportunities at the Thomson prison.