Q&A: Council member Grayeb discusses Peoria's issues, feels the city's ‘best days are ahead’
Chuck Grayeb has served on the Peoria City Council for the better part of the past three decades, now in his third term as the District 2 representative after a 12-year stint as an at-large member.
A career educator before entering civil service, Grayeb has frequently stressed a commitment to core services. In recent years, he has adamantly pushed back on proposed funding cuts for the Peoria Fire Department during the city’s budgeting process.
Last week, Grayeb joined fellow council members Zach Oyler and Beth Jensen in voting against a motion to waive the city’s right of first refusal to buy the Spirit of Peoria riverboat, with passage clearing the way for a sale that likely result in the boat’s departure.
In a wide-ranging conversation with reporter Joe Deacon, Grayeb discusses an array of topics from the city's anti-crime efforts, public safety needs, and economic growth to his vision for the city’s future and how long he hopes to remain on the council. This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Joe Deacon: The City Council voted against purchasing the Spirit of Peoria to keep the boat here. You were one of the three council members who voted against the motion to waive the right of first refusal. What drove your decision?
Chuck Grayeb: First of all, we didn't need to make the decision (Tuesday) night. And I still remain optimistic that even if this vote gets away from us, I believe there will be entrepreneurs, private entrepreneurs that will come forward and see the importance of this, visionary, public-spirited people similar to those who stepped to the plate in 2004 when I was on the council as relates to the Katie Hooper. So, if we happen to lose the boat at this juncture, I don't believe that we’ll be without a boat, and the city of Peoria will still maintain that infrastructure necessary for docking.
That was going to be my follow up question: With the Spirit likely to leave, what does the city need to do to attract someone to that vacancy? And what will the city be like without a boat for the time being?
Grayeb: Well, (I) think we'll survive. I do think the boat is a wonderful amenity. After all, one of the things that makes Peoria so special is our Illinois River, and I think Councilman (Zach) Oyler hit the ball out of the park when he repeatedly indicated how important that river is for us. We even had a presentation as relates to the importance of the river for trade and our economy regionally. So I believe – given all the work that's currently being done to establish a river walk downtown, and to provide plenty of parking for people wanting to go downtown and who are already living downtown – I think the free market system will step in and fill that void.
How do you feel about the police department's increased efforts to reduce violent crime in Peoria and how effective those have been so far this year?
Grayeb: Well, the stats indicate it's been very effective. It's not where we want to be; one homicide is one homicide too many. But we could not possibly imagine a community where people would want to live, continuing with the kind of escalating gun violence that we experienced last year with some 34 homicides. When I first came onto the council back in the ’90s, we did have about 25 or so (homicides) and we thought that was horrific. But 34 is way too much. And it's not only the number of homicides; it’s the number of shots fired. And frankly, it gets to the whole issue of the number of kids also who are involved in some of these violent crimes and carrying the hot guns.
So what do you feel the city or the police need to do to try and reduce the guns that are on the streets right now?
Grayeb: Exactly what it's been doing, and that is: heavy policing in our hotspot area, given the empirics that we have. That's where we're going to find the guns, that's where we're going to find the shots fired. And we need to be very effective and determined in our mission to make Peoria a safe place to be. Now, I can't keep people interested in living in District 2 – or anywhere in the city of Peoria – if people do not feel safe in their homes, if they hear gunshots every night, if they see people speeding down the street 70, 80, 90 miles per hour, and if we have fighting in our schools. Who in the world is going to want to come to Peoria if that continues, without a good strategy to prevent it? I believe Chief (Eric) Echevarria, in concert with our community stakeholders, has come up with a very good plan, and I believe it's already yielding results.
What about substance abuse issues that are possibly driving some of these crimes? What ways can the city or the police work to combat that issue?
Grayeb: We, of course, just recently had a very wonderful announcement (sale of Heddington Oaks to UnityPoint Health). I've been a longtime advocate (for) beefing up our mental health resources here in central Illinois and certainly in Peoria. At one time, we had the Zeller Zone Center, which was a mental health center where the ICC (Illinois Central College) north campus is. For years we have just not had the number of beds or the programming necessary to take care of not only pediatric and adolescent needs but adult needs.
We have people who end up at UnityPoint who need to be there for more intensive evaluation, but when you only have about three dozen beds – guess what? – there's going to be something called triage, and those people are going to be out way too soon, in terms of the care that they need. Also in our society, we simply haven't stressed the importance of health insurance covering, on a parity basis, mental health needs just as if these were physical problems, because in many cases, there are biochemical issues related to some of the mental health issues that we have.
You've been very vocal about making sure the Peoria Fire Department is not depleted. What needs to be done to make sure the fire department is adequately staffed and how can that be accomplished?
Grayeb: We need to fund it, and one of the things that I think we're going to hopefully be hearing is that we got the SAFER grant, which is a grant which will allow us to not have to use overtime to keep, for example, Station House 2 at Hurlburt and MacArthur open. That is pretty close to being the first responder station for not only the West Bluff, but the high-rise dorms here at Bradley University and the campus, and also our downtown – the Twin Towers, Glen Oak Towers, both of which recently in the past few months have had high-rise fires. We had severe injuries for a couple of people at the Glen Oak Towers; we were lucky a few days ago with the Twin Tower blaze.
Frankly, if we have two good fires – and by good I mean extensive fires, challenging fires for our fire rescue people to deal with – that can absolutely totally max us out, especially if they're having to go up all the various floors to check to make certain people are out. And if you start talking about a third (fire), we're in trouble. We are in trouble. Right now we do not meet national standards (of a) four-minute response time, and we're struggling just to keep up.
Years ago, in 2002, we had a study done by consultants that the council hired when I was an at-large (councilman) to study our fire rescue services, and we were told that we needed another firehouse in the northwest quadrant of the city. Guess what? It's never been built. So in recent years, for some reason councils have felt that the fire department is where they want to just keep chipping away, and it's very unwise, very short-sighted, and it's going to cost lives.
So that's why I was delighted when we passed a budget. I made the motion last year to restore service to Station House 2, and the date that I said it should be restored – we barely got that passed, six votes – the date that it was to be restored at 6 a.m., one hour later at 7 a.m. we had the Glen Oak Tower blaze. So we've got to continue to fund core basic services. People expect roads and public safety to come first.
Obviously, a major financial issue still facing the city is the public service pension obligations. How do you suggest the city should pay for these pensions? Would you be in favor of raising taxes to meet that burden?
Grayeb: Well, I'm in favor of ensuring that we keep people safe in their homes and in their communities, and whatever it takes. Now, as you know, there have been initiatives that have been taken down in Springfield to consolidate pension systems, etc. Peoria has some extremely brainy people who are downtown across the street from City Hall. It is the state pension office. So we have some of the smartest people who work in this city, and all over the state, very smart people who have some strategies for it.
Very soon, the mayor and I and the council will be meeting with some of those people to take a look at some of the additional things we can do to reduce the strain on our budgets every single year. Now, the budget issue would not exist if it hadn't been for the fact that going back several decades, they started taking money out of the pension box; it should have been left alone. When you start doing things like that, you're going to have problems, and so we're reaping the bitter fruits of that right now.
What are your thoughts on how the city's redistricting process worked out? And now with downtown part of your second district, how does it change the needs of your constituency?
Grayeb: I think that it worked out well. We had such a profound loss of people from District 1, which made our adjustments more far-reaching than in (2000) or in ’10; I was involved in those. You had thousands of people leaving the South Side; now, why did they leave the South Side? Why do we have such a huge deficit out of the valley area of Peoria? It's what we were talking about just seconds ago: crime. So we have to resolve that problem, and the mental health issues that in some cases drives that crime, and I think we're doing a better job in that regard.
District 2 now encompasses the central business district and reaches all the way out almost to Richwoods High School, on the south side of Northmoor all the way down to Allen Road and then back to the Bluff. So essentially, the council had to figure out where those thousands of people were going to come from. Either we were going to come up on the east out of the valley, or we'd come up on the west. And the votes were there to come up on the west, so that's why District 2 has changed a bit on the far western part of it. But then again, too, we have picked up the central business district and reach all the way out (from) north University to Northmoor and then back down.
What is your vision for a healthy and vibrant downtown and how can Peoria achieve it?
Grayeb: We're going to achieve it. And it's not just through money, the expenditure of money, although that always helps. It's the creativity, knowledge and love that Peorians have for their community. We're going to sit down with Peorians as we take a look at what we want that downtown to be. A catalyst for that discussion will be the money that we already have – $14 million to make Adams and Jefferson streets and no longer “autobahns,” but places where people would actually want to walk and enjoy life and maybe go to restaurants, bars, maybe retail locations, coffee shops, etc.
We have a lot of people living downtown now, and the “autobahn" effect’s not working too well for us. When I was a little kid – I grew up in Peoria – downtown was the place to go. You had two-way streets (and) you didn't feel like you're taking your life in your hands to walk across the street. But we're going to make those two-way streets, Adams and Jefferson. Planning’s about to begin; I'll call for meetings for all the stakeholders, just we're going to do with all of Main Street, which is now in District 2 from Farmington Road all the way down to the riverfront, Water Street. We have $25 million for that, thanks to the efforts of our state lawmakers, especially (Rep.) Jehan Gordon Booth, who's worked hard to bring that money home for us.
How would you like to see the city allocate its remaining COVID-19 relief funding?
Grayeb: My personal thought is that we see if we can use it to help homeowners who are having problems maintaining their homes, help them do home improvement programs. As I travel around the city, I see a rampant code enforcement abuses, and when you have ugly neighborhoods – and it's in certain areas of the city worse than others – you need to address that. Optics are all important, whether it's our downtown, wherever, whatever district it is, you can’t have properties falling in.
In many cases, we have senior citizens and people who have income challenges who just don't have the money to fix up their homes. Yes, we have roof programs (and) all kinds of programs to help fix up properties, but it's never sufficient, it's never enough. So I think code enforcement is a huge issue. I believe we need a “Marshall Plan” – a commitment of resources that would rival, on the world stage for Peoria, the Marshall Plan to beef up the resources that are available to citizens to fix up their properties all over the city. I think that it's one of the most pressing issues that we have. That's why I supported a budget that not only beefed up our core basic services in the area of police and fire rescue but also in the area of community development, which would include code enforcement and building inspections.
Are you supportive of the efforts to bring passenger train service back to Peoria? How do you think that would benefit the city and the region?
Grayeb: Yes, I am. I’m 100% in favor of that. All you have to do is take a look at the history of our community, and of any community. Transportation links are vitally important to the economy of any city. We've seen interstate highway systems being rebuilt that bypassed towns that in a number of years became ghost towns. We could’ve had (Interstate) 55 coming through Peoria if it hadn't been for the “Kerner Curve,” as they called it, which put a lot of energy down I-55, I-39, I-74 in Bloomington-Normal; that was the jet fuel for their expansion, for their economic revitalization: Mitsubishi, etc., and other companies there, instead of here in Peoria.
So the mayor and those like-minded, the people at the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, they're on target in stating that we should not have to go to Galesburg or Bloomington to get on a train. When I was a little boy, we could go down to the river and get “the Rocket” to go to Chicago, for example. Let me just say this: that passenger rail service is not only important in terms of taking people from Peoria to areas to the north, but for bringing people here. Look at what we have here for people to see. This is a great historic settlement of a city.
We have a Riverfront Museum second to none. We have historic sites second to none. We have the great Illinois River, an asset that gives us an amenity that other communities like Bloomington and Normal and elsewhere don't even have. We are becoming a medical colossus, a downstate medical center. We have a cancer center where they're going to be hurling protons to heal people. That's going to create 3,500 more jobs. So we need that train, not just for people to leave Peoria but to bring people here so they can enjoy what we have and take advantage of our employment opportunities that are coming.
What other issues do you consider as top priorities for specifically the second district and the city as a whole?
Grayeb: Well, I wore that at-large hat for 12 years, so I am a district councilman now, but what affects District 2 really affects all of the districts. I would say Districts 1-2-3 – which basically are the districts heretofore have been mostly south of War (Memorial) Drive; that's changing – these are heritage neighborhoods with a lot of older housing stock, hence my emphasis on code enforcement and preserving what we have. We shouldn't just be demolishing all these homes that can be saved. And as a historic preservationist, I believe we should be about the business of saving as many as we possibly can.
Springdale Cemetery would be another example of the council doing great things. When I was on the council back in 2002, I sponsored the (original) intergovernmental agreement to bring Springdale Cemetery – that had been under criminal operation – bring it under intergovernmental auspices, and we just renewed that agreement. That has 70,000 souls there, historic figures like Lydia Moss Bradley, Governor (Thomas) Ford, etc. And it's important not only because of the fact that it reflects the whole history of our city, but also our country. It is one of the most sacred historic sites anywhere in the United States of America, and we're going to keep that site flourishing. So there are a lot of things that are happening that are really positive in Peoria right now.
You've mentioned a few times you've been on the council for quite a while: Second District representative since 2013, and before that at-large from 1995 to 2007. You still have more than two years on your current term. How long do you think you want to remain on the council and what more would you like to accomplish?
Grayeb: Well, as long as I'm healthy and enjoying my work, I want to be there, but it's a privilege to serve. Those terms don't just roll over; in other words, like in Russia and somebody’s like there forever. We actually have free and open elections in the United States of America, and as long as the people want me to serve and I feel I have something to offer, I intend to be there. Now, who knows what will happen three years from now? Maybe I'll decide I don't want to run again. But right now I'm having a great time, and I'm looking forward to the great opportunities that are beckoning for a Peoria.
I believe Peoria’s best days are ahead. Those people who are nostalgic and say, “oh, things used to be so much better,” – no, they weren't. I grew up in Peoria and I went to Bradley University; I’m a Bradley alum, taught for 33 years, a principal most of those years. And I can tell you that we are so much farther ahead in so many areas now than we were then, just in terms of social justice. I can remember what it was like in the ’50s, where you couldn't walk into some Peoria businesses and be served if you were Black. You couldn't buy in certain neighborhoods because of restrictive covenants. We've come a long way (but) we’ve got a lot of progress to make, and I want to be part of that.
Do you believe that we still have a long way to go in terms of that diversity and equity efforts, though?
Grayeb: Of course we do. Every day, it's a new challenge. But I also think that we mustn't forget where we've been as we assess where we're going. I'm a great believer in teaching our children the history of this community, and I think this country will always be great as long as it learns the lessons of its history. When we forget what really is the bedrock of what makes us a great country and a great city, which is large amounts of personal freedom and equality of opportunity, when we get away from that, when we just worry about the top 1% instead of all the people who are part of the working class who want just a little breathing room, when we lose sight of that, then we've lost our country. And I don't believe that's going to happen.