Q&A: Peoria District 4 Councilman Allen discusses roads, business growth, reducing crime, and more
Peoria City Council member Andre Allen is just a couple weeks into his second year as the Fourth District representative.
Allen says he's grown into his position a lot since last May and is no longer a rookie as he helps guide the city into the future.
He says his goals for the upcoming year include helping Peoria encourage business development, reduce violent crime, and improve the quality of city streets.
In a conversation with reporter Joe Deacon, Allen talks about those issues and more. This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Joe Deacon: You have been on the City Council now for about a year, how have you grown into your role as a councilman?
Andre Allen: It's been a great year. I celebrated a year May 4 since being inaugurated to the Peoria City Council, and I've learned and grown a lot in this space. It's been a great, great year, really being able to connect with my constituents within the district of District Four, but then also to those within the city of Peoria as well, learning my way around the horseshoe and collaborating with my colleagues around the horseshoe, and getting to know city staff and the services that we have at our disposal here in the city. So it's been a great year and (I’m) looking forward to my sophomore year, now that I'm no longer rookie.
Is there anything about the position that you didn't quite expect, or didn't know going in, or that you're still learning?
Allen: Coming into this type of position, you got to have some thick skin. I'm someone who always wants to please people – I'm a people pleaser; I think I get that from my mother. We've had to make some unpopular decisions, and so sometimes the Facebook trolls get me a little bit. But I have to say, “You know what, at the end of the day, you're not going to please everyone.” You just have to make the best decisions with the information you have. As long as your heart’s in the right place, ultimately people will respect you and that's what it's been so far.
When you say unpopular decisions, what have been some of the ones that you've heard the most about that people are not happy with?
Allen: The Spirit of Peoria vote. That was – I’m a Peoria native; I grew up visiting the Spirit for summer camps and things of that nature, and so that was a tough vote. Ultimately, I supported us not countering the offer of $1 million because I felt that was not a good expenditure of taxpayer dollars, based off the information that we had. We weren't able to do an appraisal to really find the true value of the boat, and things of that nature. So it felt that it was the best to pull the Band-aid off and let the boat ride off into the sunset. But that was a tough vote. That was tough.
You know you're going to have to deal with the biannual budget, which that was a great experience of going through that. Someone around the horseshoe joked and said, “Andre, when you get on the horseshoe, we're worrying about how to spend extra money and not have to make cuts,” that they've had during the last several budget cycles because of the current economic climate. When you come into a budget cycle where revenues were stronger than projected, and then also we had some extra funds coming in from the American Rescue Plan and the CARES Act dollars and trying to decide on where those go, that was a great experience to go through that. Passing a balanced budget, being able to approve additional police officers, being able to support public works (and) community development. I'm excited about the SAFER grant that the fire department applied for and we should be hearing something about that early in the summer, and then that will help them get their staffing up as well, too, and then we were also able to open up another fire house as well.
So as you go into the second year on the council, what are some of your goals and plans for the Fourth District and the city as a whole? What do you see is the biggest issues and priorities right now?
Allen: Well, the maps changed as of May 1, and so my district looks different than the district that I ran for a year ago. This summer will be all about doing intentional outreach, connecting with those new constituents that have now entered in District Four. So I'll be doing some monthly outreach with them, getting into the neighborhoods that I've inherited now, just to let them know that I'm their guy, they can come to me. I've already started doing that but we're going to be really intentional this summer, really hitting those neighborhood associations, those homeowners associations, those block parties. I mean, you are going to see me, so if you are now in District Four, you're going to see Andre Allen this summer, because I think it's very important that we engage the new district.
Secondly, it will be to engage the business community within my district. So my district has now inherited The Shoppes at Grand Prairie; I have Willow Knolls Shopping Center. My first year, I was very intentional about building relationships with Northwoods Mall and Glen Hollow and Westlake and some of the other smaller businesses within the district. But now I need to expand my reach to those other businesses as well, too. So that'd be something that I'll be working on.
Also, when we talk about goals: continuing to just improve relationships and build relationships with city staff. You know, when you go down there (for Council meetings) on that second Tuesday or that fourth Tuesday, you don’t really going to get a chance to really interact with the staff. I also have a full time job as well, too, so I don't always get to get to the council meetings before 4:30. So I definitely want to be a little bit more intentional about trying to get down there during the daytime, just to interact with city staff more. I think that's a goal of mine; I think that's very, very appropriate.
One of the things I campaigned on was doing a monthly “small business review” of District Four, and so I definitely want to be doing that – highlighting the small businesses in there. We've got some vacant spaces within the district, specifically Sterling Plaza and a couple other places, and so I do want to do some small business open houses for those entrepreneurs who are thinking about stepping outside of their home and want that brick and mortar space. I definitely want to shop those spaces that we have available within the district, so that's an initiative that I want to grow as well, too.
And then: Repair roads; infrastructure. It's so important, not only those main roads – such as, we'll have some TLC coming to Orange Prairie and Allen Road – but then seeing what we can do within our neighborhoods as well, too. I know that my constituents want their roads repaired, and so I'll continue to keep advocating for those as well.
You touched on a couple of topics I had on my list here, and one of them is the roads. Obviously, it's kind of a stopgap measure with fixing some of the potholes that you're going through right now on Allen Road and Orange Prairie and Pioneer Parkway, things like that. But what are some of the key aspects to getting these roads to the standard that you'd like to see in the future?
Allen: Well, right now to repair road, it's very expensive. To do a block, it's like $1 million. I mean, it's very expensive (when) you talk about full-blown reconstruction; let me clarify that’s a full-blown reconstruction. Some of our roads need to be fully reconstructed, and that's why Allen Road was tentatively to be reconstructed over the next two years. But we have deferred that because of a recommendation from our city staff within public works, but then also IDOT (Illinois Department of Transportation).
We know that there's going to be a full-blown reconstruction on Glen Avenue that's going to happen; we have state funding to help us support that, $8 million from the state. That's going to be a two-year project, and so when you figure when you have a full-blown reconstruction on Glen Avenue – which is already a busy road – and then if you would have had a full-blown reconstruction on Allen Road, that's a perfect storm on War Memorial. So that was one of the reasons why we decided to say, “You know what, we're going to defer the reconstruction on Allen Road so that way we can get through Glen Avenue,” because that is a road that definitely needs some TLC. By us doing that, though, we were able to reallocate those funds, and so we'll be laying some overlays and doing some patch work, and we were able to service for roads since we're deferring that reconstruction: that's Allen Road, that's Orange Prairie, that's Nebraska (Avenue), and that's also Pioneer Park as well, too.
One thing about me is, although I'm a district councilman, I keep that city-wide perspective. So when (public works) director (Rick) Powers brought this opportunity to me, along with the city manager, I said, “you know what, I'm OK with seeing the bigger picture,” because we'll be able to service two roads within my district. But then also, I can serve as Allen Road, me and my colleague, Dennis Cyr, who oversees the Fifth District, we talked about that. Then also my colleagues in the Second and the Third (districts) that share Nebraska, being able to give them support as well, too.
Now, the challenge, though, is – now that we have historical funding coming down with infrastructure bills and things of that nature – the challenge is making sure that we have, for lack of a better word, the manpower to do it. Every industry is facing that right now; we have historical funds at our disposal and we don't have the staff to execute those. Are we going to have the contracts and the bids necessary to do all this infrastructure work? Then the challenge is: We're in Peoria, Illinois, not Peoria, Arizona, and so we only get about four or five months of good weather to do these road projects.
So I tell constituents that once we get the staffing levels (up) and we're able to do these projects, be patient – because those orange barrels are going to be everywhere and we only have a certain amount of time to really get these projects done. It's a perfect storm of needing the funding – which we have and it's coming as well; it’s going to continue to come down from the state and the federal level – and it's making sure that we have the staffing to execute these projects as well, too. I think that's going to be very important. Then we just need things that we can control, and those are acts of God: that's good weather, and that's keeping this pandemic at bay. Hopefully we don't see COVID levels rise, and that affect staffing and things of that nature.
You brought up the shopping centers a little bit ago as well. What would you like to see happen in regard to revitalizing Northwoods Mall and some of these other shopping centers, and how can the city assist with any revitalization?
Allen: Well, I like the direction that Northwoods Mall is going specifically. Losing anchor stores like Sears and Macy's is tough, but every shopping center across America is going through this because of online shopping and a variety of factors. So what Northwoods Mall has done is they really cater to small businesses. Outside of Sears they and maybe one other small place, they're about 90% occupied in the mall. I mean, if you get a chance, check out the mall, those listeners who are out there. Northwoods Mall is doing some big things.
I was in there this past weekend and there's a new selfie store that just started up; a great couple that owns that, it's a Black-owned business. They've got all these different stations where young people and people in general – you may be an influencer, so you could go there and get your selfies or your videos, your content and all that. I think that's very innovative, and we're seeing different businesses do that within the mall.
The mall is thinking outside of what a traditional mall looks like, and I think that's what we'll have to continue to keep doing with our shopping centers: creating those brand alliances. There's a reason why when you go into Walmart, you might see a Subway – two things that really don't match, but that Subway knows if they're inside of a Walmart, they're going to get the traffic. So we're going to have to start reimagining for our shopping centers, you may see a large shopping center, they may have a prompt care move into it. There's a mall in Quincy, Illinois, that their health care provider moved into that mall; they took over like a bottom level of a Sears. So that's what you're going to start seeing, and that's what we need our owners of our shopping centers to do is to be creative; continue to support small businesses, but don't be afraid to be innovative and add some different things in there just to drive traffic.
What else should the city be doing to encourage economic development and business growth?
Allen: Well, we got to get rid of the red tape. That was one of the things I was happy to support that was led by Councilman Cyr. He reviewed a lot of the policies and procedures with our community development director Joe Dulin, and they were able to eliminate some fees that were hindering some people; they were able to decrease some fees as well, too. Because those fees, especially right now, come out of a pandemic, every dollar matters. I think that's one way of doing it.
We don't want to be labeled as not being business friendly, and so when someone comes to the city of Peoria and we have to say “no,” we need to make sure we're not just saying “no;” we need to say, “no, but this is why,” and how do we get to a “yes.” I think that's very important in providing that encouragement that is necessary, seeing what we can do from a financial (standpoint) as far as support. Right now, the RISE program, which has been launched recently out of our economic development department within the city of Peoria, where businesses can apply for up to $50,000 per pillar to help things such as lost revenues during the pandemic, or let's say you want to do an infrastructure project – you want to add to your roof, or you want to add a fence around your business or something along those lines.
When we get those grant opportunities, it's so important that as a city we are ringing the bell. I'm excited about the staffing that we have there, with Kevin Evans, and our assistant city manager, Kimberly Richardson, and her staff. Joe Dulin has done a great job really pumping out those grants and hosting those seminars, because that's what we have to do. When we get the funding, we've got to ring the alarm and we've got to make sure that we are aware of who we're giving these funds to. I think we need to make sure that we are diverse in our allotment; not making sure that the same usual suspects get the funds, but we've got to be very intentional of spreading the pot and giving everybody a chance. The mantra is “if it can play in Peoria, it can play anywhere,” and we want people to know that their ideas can play in Peoria, and as a city, we've got to be respective of that and we've got to live that.
You mentioned being diverse with some of this funding. What do you see as the city's key efforts to improving diversity and equity across the city in all levels?
Allen: Well, it's the holistic approach. You've got to look at DEI, diversity, equity inclusion, I mean, there's so much that goes into that. Peoria is one of the most diverse cities in the state, when you look at our population: almost 30% African-American, a little over 10% Latinx, and so forth and so forth. So we have the demographics; we have diversity, by default, because the people are already here. So now though we need to make sure that people are feeling included. That is making sure that when we have major decisions, we're bringing people to the table, we're reaching out, we're being intentional about making sure that people are heard and valued.
Then the last piece is equity, and making sure that if we need to lift up a certain population of people, we're not afraid to do that. With the American Rescue Plan dollars, that money has an equity lens. So it has to be spent in what is called “qualified census tracts.” Those are areas below Forest Hill, and so we're going to see a lot of economic investment in those areas that have been neglected over the last decade, two decades, three decades, and it's a reason why you see the population decline in the First and the Second Districts – because of lack of investment, and people wanting to move north, or even just leave the state completely, which we can't control. But people have really migrated to the Fourth and the Fifth Districts. So we'll be able to have some funding that we can address the equity piece of that.
Mayor Ali, she is a champion in this work, so we're very excited to have her as a leader in this space. She was the champion, and I was involved in it as well, to have the Racial Justice and Social Equity Commission that is sponsored by both the city and the county. Those various commissions are now starting to get their sea legs; it was kind of tough when it formed this past year, because of COVID and trying to do things via Zoom and all that. So now that people are actually able to get in a room and like really engage and build relationships with each other, we're starting to see some traction as well, too.
A month ago at our last meeting, we matched out of our ARP funds $600,000 with the county's ARP funds, so it's going to be $1.2 million, that that commission is going to be able to utilize to execute some of those ideas that they have to promote diversity, equity and inclusion within our city but and also our county as well, too. We've got the infrastructure in place to move this; again, we have the population, we've got the demographics. But now we just got to continue to be intentional, and I think right now there is the buy-in for this type of work that is very important.
I serve on a variety of boards and committees within the city, and just seeing the intentionality that our employers have as well, too, which is very important, because in order for us to really address the issues here in our city, we've got to raise the economic tide of our city. I mean, economics is a tide that raises all boats, and so when you raise the economic floor of the 61605 on the south end of Peoria, you're going to feel that in the Fifth District, because if they are raising more money and they're able to participate more in the economy, then guess what? Maybe you get a little property tax relief because we can tip the scale a little bit. So I think we have the offense in place to do it. We just got to execute it.
What are your thoughts on police Chief Eric Echevarria’s community-based anti-violence initiative and how effective it's been so far this year? What other approaches can the city take to reduce crime?
Allen: You know, I had the privilege of serving on Chief Echevarria’s search committee, and when he left, I remember when we wrapped up his interview, I immediately said I need to step my game up because of the passion that he gave. I knew that he was our guy and I'm very excited to have him and his family within our community.
And I love what he's been doing. I'm the council liaison on the advisory committee for police and community relations; I served as the chair for a year before I got on the city council as well, too. So I still attend those meetings frequently, and he's done a great job about interacting with that committee. But then also to just being innovative: the walk-and-talks that he's been doing, really getting out in the community. I haven't had the chance to participate in a walk-and-talk, but I plan on doing it. I know several of our committee members from our advisory committee on police relations have participated in the walk in talks, which is good.
He's someone that he is everywhere. It's really good to see him just really interacting and really he and his officers taking that community policing approach. I was able to attend the press conference that he and State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth had with Gov. Pritzker coming to town, talking about the co-response model and how that legislation was signed into law and it'll be piloted right here in Peoria, which is great. It's just reimagining policing, and it is really highlighting the importance of both community and police and you can't have one without the other. State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth said it best: she said, “police are part of our community as well.” So we've got to make sure that we are supporting both the police and the community in order for us to have a safer Peoria.
You mentioned your roles with the advisory commission. How would you like to see that committee increase its oversight responsibilities?
Allen: You know, I think right now, the committee is fine where it is. I think the way it's set up, it's really meant to be that bridge-builder between the police and the community. So right now, it's been very active in trying to think about innovative ways; I mean, the last year on a quarterly basis, they were – not they, but we – were doing some community outreach things. We had a virtual presentation about a month ago, where we brought in community resources to speak: Derrick Booth was there; he spoke on behalf of the wraparound center; we've had Chief Demario Boone with Peoria Public Schools talk about the resources there. We had someone from the juvenile detention center talk about resources they have as well, too. We're really reimagining what this committee is, because although it can be a vessel to receive grievances from our citizens, and then review those and ultimately make a non-binding recommendation to the chief of police, we understand that we want to be proactive in that and we want to build those relationships.
Now, when it comes to making those non-binding agreements, in the time that I've been on the committee we haven't had that many complaints come to us. So it's hard to really say what's working and what's not working. If we've gotten to a place – and I'm glad we're not at that place – but let's say we got to a place where we had 10 grievances come to us and we're making all these non-binding recommendations to the chief and then they're being sustained, then maybe we would say, “Wow, OK. We need to look at this committee and maybe look at the ordinance and see how we can get us some more teeth because, you know, we're making recommendations and you all aren't paying attention to the recommendations that we're making.” But that's not the case right now; we're not getting the complaints – which is, again, is not a bad thing. I do want to say that's not a bad thing. They're being settled at that police level, and when people get their letter, either they feel they're OK with the recommendation that was given to them, but they have our contact information if they want to escalate it further.