Thomson Prison file photo
This file photo shows a guard tower overlooking a fence and coils of wire surrounding the Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson. (AP Photo/The Daily Gazette, Alex Paschal, File)

CHICAGO -- The state of Illinois held its auction of the Thomson Correctional Center on Tuesday in downtown Chicago, but, as expected, there were no bidders.

While the vacant prison near the Quad Cities wasn't sold, both Gov. Pat Quinn's office and the Federal Bureau of Prisons said Tuesday they're still highly interested in transferring the property.

First, though, Congress must come up with the money.

"We stand ready to work with the state as soon as funds are provided," Traci Billingsley, a spokeswoman for the federal prisons bureau, said after the auction.

The auction was the latest step in the state's process for disposing surplus property, and it's not surprising that no one turned up to bid.

Congress hasn't appropriated the money yet, even though Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., made a last-ditch effort to get funding in the lame duck session of Congress.

In a statement Tuesday, Durbin, a key backer of the sale, said he is encouraged that negotiations between the state and the federal government are taking place.

"In anticipation of the two sides eventually agreeing on a price for the sale of Thomson, I have engaged the attorney general to make sure that the funds are available for purchase," he said.

On Monday, Durbin sent U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder a letter asking that existing money be sought to pay for Thomson. He also said he would continue to seek congressional funding next year.

The Obama administration proposed buying the prison a year ago to house foreign detainees now at the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The detainee transfer stalled in Congress, but the administration still wants Thomson to ease overcrowding in the federal prison system.

In a letter to Gov. Pat Quinn on Tuesday, Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Harley Lappin said acquisition of the facility would create more than 1,100 jobs in the region, and the annual operating expenditures would exceed $122 million.

He added it also would mean $61 million in annual business sales and $19 million in labor income for local communities.

A spokesman for Quinn said the governor also is committed to the sale.

"The state of Illinois will continue to work with the federal government to complete the sale of Thomson Correctional Center," Grant Klinzman said.

In one twist, Lappin said in the letter that a conflict between state and federal laws precluded the bureau from even taking part in the auction.

He did not explain what that conflict might be, however.

Meanwhile, the eventual purchase price still is in doubt.

The state had said it could accept no less than $219.9 million at auction. But the governor's office declined to say whether it could take less than that now.

"I can't speculate on a potential sale price," Klinzman said.

The Justice Department had initially asked Congress for $237 million to purchase and upgrade the prison and fund a year of operation.

A Thomson-area economic development official said Tuesday he still is optimistic the sale will go through, but he acknowledged there still is some wariness among some in the area about that.

Thomson was built nearly nine years ago and repeated promises to open it, mostly by the state, have gone unfulfilled.

He said the federal government has worked closely with local officials, and the need for the prison to improve the local economy still exists.

"It's a matter of time now, not if," said Randy Prasse, executive director of the Tri-County Economic Development Alliance.


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