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Q&A: Mayor Ali outlines additional goals, priorities for the new year

211007 Mayor Rita Ali.jpg

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali believes better days are ahead for the city in 2022, but challenges remain.

A rash of gun violence in 2021 led to the most homicides during a single year in recent memory, and a variant-driven COVID-19 surge is posing a renewed threat to the community.

While those are Peoria's primary concerns, Mayor Ali has many more issues and areas she hopes to address. In this conversation with reporter Joe Deacon, Ali discusses her other goals and priorities for the year ahead.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Joe Deacon: As 2022 begins, what are your biggest priorities for the upcoming year?

Mayor Rita Ali: Getting a strategic plan going. Getting redistricting out of the way; we're launching redistricting (and) we'll have meetings every week. We'll hopefully wrap up the redistricting mapping process by the end of March, that's my hope. Beginning shortly after that, launching (the) strategic planning process, focusing on economic development, a new vision for Peoria. One other goal certainly is the passenger rail, and addressing issues of inequity within our community. Equity was part of my campaign. That's a focus, in making sure that we're addressing the needs of all of our citizens within the city. It overall helps us to become a stronger, better city.

Do you anticipate any major hurdles with the redistricting process?

Ali: You know, I think it's going to be somewhat challenging, because it's a huge change. I mean, we lost almost 4,000 residents out of District 1. So District 1 is likely going to have to go up the hill, whether that's in the East Bluff, West Bluff or both. District 5 has to lose about 5,500 people from its district, so it has to be shortened – which means that District 4 may assume some of that and have to be cut out earlier. There's a lot … it's going to look very different, I would say, in terms of the new district lines.

Melodi Green recently started as the city's Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. What is the goal of this new position, and what kind of powers and resources will she have at her disposal?

Ali: Sure, we're pleased to bring on Melodi Green, who was a city attorney for a number of years. She left to go to the county and she's coming back with us as our Chief Diversity Officer. So (it’s) really creating a plan for diversification at the City of Peoria in terms of helping to diversify our workforce. Helping to create a more welcome environment within the City of Peoria for the workforce, as well as for the public. Being more sensitive to issues of diversity; removing barriers as it relates to race and ethnicity within our policies. Working very closely with our new Racial Justice and Equity commission, and also being involved in an affirmative action-type activities – and that includes vendors, watching to see where we are in terms of awarding contracts to women and underrepresented minorities. Those are the types of activities that will take place with our Chief Diversity Officer.

And will she have additional staff?

Ali: It’s a very small-staffed office. I think the administrative staff is shared, like many of the departments share an administrative assistant. But you know, I think our last chief diversity officer had an office of three people. But at the same time, although there may be limited staff, there's also that connectivity to other departments. So you leverage your resources through the other the other staff.

What is the ultimate goal of bringing more diversity? Is there a certain level you'd like to see?

Ali: Well, absolutely. We want the staff at the city to mirror the demographics of the City of Peoria. We established, a number of years ago, an ordinance was developed for police and fire (departments), that we have (diversity) goals set every year. We're going to revisit those goals because we were not able to keep up with the high goals, especially with the budget that we had. There were cutbacks, and whenever you have cutbacks that actually has a negative impact on your goals. So those goals have to be reset. But again, ideally, the goal is that your workforce mirrors the population of your city.

The regulation of short-term rentals isn't quite fully resolved among the City Council. What kind of long-range policy would you like to see happen in this issue?

Ali: Well, I think that we, we have made some good policies, and we've listened to the public. Everybody is not against the short-term rentals; they just want to make sure that it doesn't create an environment or a situation that has a negative impact on their neighborhood. They don't want a lot of late parties. They don't want a lot of additional noise. They don't want cars taking the place of where they are used to parking, or a lot of cars parked outside their homes. So they want investment in these properties. So in many cases, the properties that are providing short-term rental, the investors or the owners have put additional funding into those properties. They made them more beautiful, more attractive to the community. And in that sense, the neighborhoods have welcomed some of these short-term rentals,

Looking at the Warehouse District, I know at a recent City Council meeting, there was a code change that won't allow any more liquor licenses that extend to 4 a.m. How are things progressing in the Warehouse District?

Ali: Sure, the warehouse district is a growing community. We expect for more housing to take place there, more residents will live there. It's very exciting, with the numbers of properties that are being purchased within the Warehouse District; if you want property within the Warehouse District, you’d better get it now, because it's going pretty fast. But those residents, again, that's where they live (and) that's where they spend much of their time. So at the same time that they want elements of recreation (and) they want elements of entertainment, they don't want loud noise or parties taking place really late into the morning hours. So what we received is a recommendation not to have 4 o'clock (liquor) licenses there, and those 4 o'clock licenses will still take place in the Central Business District and other areas.

How important is it for the city to see that Warehouse District continue to be revitalized?

Ali: It's extremely important. It's really in the center of downtown. Again, it's appealing to people of all ages. It's near the Riverfront. There's many amenities coming, and again, we hope to have passenger rail there to make it accessible for people to go and come more easily to different parts of our state and our country.

Since you brought up the passenger rail, can you give us an update on where those discussions stand with that right now?

Ali: Yes, I'm very excited at the progress that we've made. We have a feasibility study that's been a financed that's taking place. We had a three-hour work group meeting with our consultants and our Peoria leadership team for passenger rail. And that study will end by March 31, (then) we're going to introduce a what's called an interest survey to the community – community-wide, region-wide, MSA (metropolitan statistical area)-wide – to ask people: “Are you interested in riding a train from Peoria? Where would you be interested in going? Chicago? St. Louis? Indianapolis? Connecting to other cities?” So that interest survey will go out throughout the community. From there, they are actually … we're looking at two corridors, one going east to west, one north to south. Chicago is a key factor, a key connecting point because it connects you to all other places within the country.

So I'm very excited (with) where we are; they're looking at the track, and what kind of costs are associated. So the consultants by March 31 will identify what is associated with each of those corridors, and we’ll be able to figure out which is the most appealing. We're also looking at a station, where we put a station? We have $50,000 provided through a grant for Tri-County Regional Planning, and we're looking at where is the most feasible place to put a train station in Peoria.

Have you thought of any places that you might see that would work best?

Ali: We believe downtown is the best location. There's many entities or buildings that are on the waterfront there. There's the post office; that might be a consideration if it were to locate somewhere else. But there's other facilities along that same pathway.

What does the city want to do with the Gateway Building? Is exploring a sale or different uses as a possibility?

Ali: We are exploring different uses, and still open to possibly selling that building if there's a good buyer. We may share the space; keep some of the space for the city and rent some of the space out (like) the ballroom area. There's a lot of upgrades that are needed within the facility, so we're just not sure at this point.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.