A federal prison in Thomson, Illinois is looking to expand its workforce, but they're facing difficulty enticing workers to settle down locally.
Administrative United States Penitentiary, Thomson was built in 2001. It sat empty for years until it was bought by the federal Bureau of Prisons in 2012. The prison has slowly boosted its hiring and operations since 2015. Local residents were optimistic about a new jobs pipeline, and Thomson Village President Vicky Trager says there's solid evidence of new hires.
"More traffic through town, more customers at the local gas station/convenience store, that sort of thing," she said.
But it's been difficult to attract new workers to the area because of Thomson's limited amenities.
"It's hard to believe we have no retail in Thomson and we have limited housing," she said. "The housing that we do have is mostly older, small, single family homes. We have some income-based multi-unit apartment buildings."
Michelle Horst is a Human Resource Specialist for the Bureau of Prisons. She says this lack of amenities means employees commute an average of 30 miles to work.
She says most employees reside in the Illinois cities of Thomson, Savanna, Mount Carroll, Fulton, Morrision and the Sterling/Rock Falls area, as well as Clinton, Iowa. "However, we do have some employees that commute as far as 50-70 miles or more, including a significant number in the Quad Cities area," she said.
In response, the warden sent out a letter May 24th to the governments of Thomson and its surrounding communities. It outlined the prison's goal to increase its staff from 400 to around 600. Spokeswoman Nicole McDowell says the letter also addresses the lack of development.
"Some of the current concerns we've had from potential staff is housing, schools, and day cares," she said. "So we're reaching out to the community in hopes that they'll see we are here, we're open, we're staying, and we'll start developing in the area for those staff."
This can be particularly important for the more specialized workers Thomson is trying to hire. Horst explains:
"We're also filling positions in our Department of Health Services to include a clinical director, physician, nurse practitioner, physician assistant, registered nurse, paramedic, and we also have clinical psychologist positions to fill," she said.
The lingering issue for Thomson has been the prison's history. It's been in Thomson for more than 20 years, but operations didn't begin in earnest until it was bought by the feds. Trager says this perception of inactivity leaves developers cautious.
"I appreciate that most folks aren't in the business of losing money on a grocery store or an apartment structure," she said. "I get it. But there's a lot of grant money out there and there are a lot of housing credits out there that are available now, and one of the biggest obstacles I have -- and that I think the warden's letter addressed -- is just to convince the people that it's really real."
Dee Shepherd is a Savanna-based real estate agent who hopes developers will consider local investment.
"Contractors, please come. We have lots of lots at various amounts -- city, rural, small acreage, big acreage, sometimes even just a half acre on a city lot," she said.
Since the release of the warden's letter, McDowell says several communities have responded with commitments to new development.
"Outside of Thomson, Mt Carroll let us know that they're doing a renovation that's going to provide lots and lots of housing, and Clinton let us know that they are about to do another housing area like the 'landing' that they have that will also house a lot of staff," she said.
The response from outside communities doesn’t directly address the lack of development in Thomson, but Trager says the village isn't strictly in competition with its neighbors.
"A town the size of Thomson can't absorb 600 new prison staff," she said. "We know it has to be spread around and we know a lot of them are living in Fulton or Savanna or Mt. Carroll."
For now, the Bureau of Prisons has designated Thomson a "hard to fill" institution, allowing staff to offer a variety of hiring and pension incentives. As for Thomson itself, Trager hopes the warden's recent letter can get the word out about new job hires and attract future developers.
"All I can do is hope that, the Warden -- coming from him -- they will believe it," she said. "Now they will come and say, 'Let's check out this town.'"