Mayor Ali Touts Accomplishments In First 100 Days, And Hints At Future Developments
Dr. Rita Ali is touting the strides forward the city has made in her first 100 days as Peoria's mayor - and she's dropping hints about some big developments in the works.
Ali highlighted economic development, population growth, neighborhood safety, education, the arts, equity, and efforts to promote more transparency and public engagement as focus areas during her first few months in office.
"Those are the areas that are really top priorities for me. I think they're top priorities for the city," the mayor said.
Ali said about 30 new businesses have started up in Peoria in just the last 100 days. She said economic development efforts have been bolstered by the General Assembly's renewal of the Rivers Edge Redevelopment Zone and the Warehouse District and Hospitality Improvement Zone TIF districts.
"Economic development is critical. I mean, we have to draw and attract more businesses to Peoria. We have to create more jobs for Peoria. So that's a high priority," Ali said.
Though she's not naming names at this point, Ali gave some details on two major developments in the works.
That includes talks with a "prominent bio-tech entrepreneur" interested in bringing pharmaceutical production to Peoria.
"They are people that have expertise and money. And they're really interested in doing business in Peoria," the mayor said. "One has some roots near our area. Another has some relationships with people in our area, and they think that Peoria is centrally located. And that it has a strong healthcare system in place, you know, with our our big UnityPoint and OSF and other suppliers, and that there's potential good opportunity for this type of business."
Ali said those talks also involve Dr. Kiran Velpula, the newest Peoria At-Large councilmember and a faculty member at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria.
The mayor said there's also a "prominent philanthropic program" interested in piloting a high-tech job training program focused on creating opportunities in underserved areas, particularly Peoria's 61605 ZIP code.
"He studied Peoria, he studied what's happening in Peoria 61605, for one, as one of the most distressed ZIP code areas in the country. And he wants to have an impact," Ali said. "He thinks that, again, like the old saying, if it plays in Peoria, perhaps it can play anywhere. And so there's an interest in in doing something here that may be replicable in other areas of the country."
Ali said that philanthropist met with around 40 people while visiting the Peoria area to explore possibilities for his concept.
The mayor gave no firm timelines or statuses for either of those ongoing conversations.
The mayor highlighted a report by the AdvisorSmith website naming Peoria the most affordable midsized city in the nation.
She also talked up Smart City initiatives like building out electric vehicle infrastructure and lobbying for high-speed passenger rail service directly to Peoria.
Ali also said it won't be surprising if 2020 U.S. Census data shows Peoria's population has dipped slightly in the past decade.
"But the data will provide us with a baseline from which to grow our population and inform us of other demographic information such as homeownership, poverty, family income, racial mix and education levels," she said.
Mayor Ali said there is "a lot of enthusiasm" around the hiring of new police chief Eric Echevarria. He comes to Peoria from Elgin, where he spearheaded a community policing program.
She acknowledged the city's violent year, but said there's work happening to address it.
"Yes, there's been a lot of shootings happening in Peoria. Alot of gun violence. In response to that, I assembled over 50 community leaders, tasked with creating community-based solutions to address gun violence," the mayor said. "And these individuals met me at the Peoria Police Department, and it was almost 100% response, as well as in terms of that attendance. We went to the police, to say, we want to help you to solve this problem."
She said that group continues to meet every two weeks. She's also recruited the services of local engineer Reid Harmon to construct a system called the Safety Network, or S-NET for short.
That network is bringing together groups like the Peoria Public Schools Wraparound Center, Peoria Community Against Violence, the HOI United Way, the Peoria Park District, and others she said were previously working on these issues separately in their own siloes.
Education and the arts
Ali says she's met with the leaders of Peoria Public Schools, Illinois Central College, Bradley University and UICOMP to discuss opportunities for partnerships going forward.
She also highlighted adding two members to the Peoria Arts Advisory Committee to make that committee more diverse.
As an at-large councilperson, Ali was one of the key players in the formation of the Joint Commission on Racial Justice and Equity in the wake of George Floyd's murder last year in Minneapolis.
The 156-member commission is a combined effort of the City of Peoria and Peoria County, focusing on nine sub-areas, such housing, justice, and transportation.
That full commission met for the first time last month at the Peoria Civic Center.
"This was the most diverse, educationally diverse, racially diverse, ethnically diverse, gender diverse group that I've ever seen," Ali said. "It was pretty amazing to see the level of commitment in our community of people that want to address issues of race and equity."
The mayor also said she's optimistic the city will fill its vacant Chief Diversity Officer position by year's end.
"It actually measures and assesses and measures how we're spending our money, where we're spending our money. Are we spending money in low income or more distressed communities? Are we spending money in areas that are predominantly minority areas? So it actually makes an assessment," she said.
Increasing transparency and engagement
Ali has filled 238 vacancies on various city commissions since taking office, bringing many of them up to full speed.
She said she's also met with more than 50 local, state, and federal policymakers over her first 100 days to discuss opportunities for the city and region.
Ali touted an effort by Chief Echevarria to create a new "crime dashboard" as an effort towards increased government transparency.
"This was something that was created in Elgin, Illinois, where he comes from, and it's almost like a website that you can go to to see what happened yesterday in the city," Ali said. "I want Peoria to have that kind of transparency."
She said the cost of creating such a dashboard is "very low."
The mayor said she has no regrets about how she's spent her first 100 days in office, but said there are a lot of demands on her time, and she's still learning how to pace herself.
She said working in the democratic process can slow things down, but she's alright with that, because it builds teamwork around the horseshoe.
"Collaboration is the way that we're going to work. And it's really the best way to get things done ultimately," she said.