Q&A: Riggenbach sees District 3 as a ‘microcosm’ for all of Peoria
Tim Riggenbach is one of the longest-tenured members of the Peoria City Council, serving as the Third District representative since 2009.
In a broad discussion with reporter Joe Deacon, Riggenbach discusses neighborhood safety, affordable housing, rising energy costs, road construction, and how the needs of his district reflect those of all Peorians.
This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Joe Deacon: What do you see as the biggest needs and priorities and issues facing the Third District and the city as a whole right now?
Tim Riggenbach: I think the Third District is really a microcosm for the city in so many ways. When you look at the things that we have going on there and the challenges we face, they can really be extrapolated to the city as a whole. I think safe neighborhoods has to be the No. 1 thing that that we talk about, and that's a reduction in the gun violence that we're seeing. That is improving the lighting, the sidewalks, the infrastructure in the neighborhoods; there's a lot of things that go into that. But keeping our neighborhoods strong and healthy is the No. 1 priority, in my opinion.
Well, to that end, how do you feel about the anti-violence initiative that Chief (Eric) Echevarria has started in the ways of trying to reduce gun violence throughout the city?
Riggenbach: You know, I think we all smile when we look at the things the chief is doing. I mean, he's definitely bringing a new energy and a little bit of out-of-the-box thinking. These walk-and-talks that he's doing in the neighborhoods mean so much to the residents. He's getting the officers out of the cars and into the neighborhoods, and that’s stuff that people have been asking for and people are responding to.
The police department opened a resource center in the East Bluff a couple years ago. What effect has that had on the community and how might that be better utilized?
Riggenbach: We're definitely looking at ways to better utilize it. The director of that office has taken another position so there's no full-time staffing there right now, which is a little disappointing. Ironically, I just had a neighborhood meeting in that space about two weeks ago with some of the residents and some of the East Bluff stakeholders, just talking about the different ways we can get some vitality going back into that center. I think the most important thing is that the officers use that as a place, whether they just need to fill out some paperwork, but they go in there and sit rather than do it in their cars. Because having that unscheduled police presence in the neighborhood is very welcome.
How has the Resident Officer Program benefited your district, and what is the current status of that program?
Riggenbach: That has been a tremendous asset for us. The East Bluff was the second area that got an officer, a resident officer, and Officer (Carey) Hightower and Officer (Jerry) James were both very well received by the residents. Just having that presence – again, an officer walking the beat, if you will, means a lot and knowing that they're available, not just 9-to-5 but in hours outside the clock that really means a lot and has an impact. Right now, we're looking for a new officer to take that position in the East Bluff; we're waiting with bated breath, if you will, to get that filled again.
You mentioned along with the safety about pedestrian safety, sidewalks and things of that nature, lighting. How would you like to see these issues addressed and what can be done to improve pedestrian safety?
Riggenbach: I think if anybody drives up and down Knoxville, south of McClure say, you see people crossing the street at very precarious places; they don't necessarily go to the corner in the crosswalk. So that's something that needs to be addressed with a mindset as well as actual infrastructure. But in the neighborhoods, I'm particularly proud of some of the work we're doing in the East Bluff.
Nebraska Avenue between Knoxville and Wisconsin is a segment that I consider a real gateway into the East Bluff. Last year, we were able to improve all those sidewalks so we have a continuous new sidewalk all that whole stretch. This year we're working on the pedestrian-scale lighting. We want to make it inviting so that people know that there's something down here worth checking out.
Nebraska Avenue, also it's going to get a bit of a patchwork resurfacing; instead of doing a total rebuild on Allen Road, the city was able to kind of spread things out. How important is that going to be to helping the district?
Riggenbach: That is actually the other side of Knoxville that that new work is going to be done; last year, we did the mill and overlay between Knoxville and Wisconsin, so we're very pleased with the way that's worked out. But Councilman (Chuck) Grayeb and I work together on a lot of issues, and having that whole Nebraska corridor from the Ag lab – or Sterling Avenue, call it – all the way to Prospect, that's a major east-west thoroughfare that is really underappreciated. So we're very pleased that we're able to get that segment between Sterling and University on the docket for this year,
Parts of the East Bluff qualify as a food desert. What can be done to try and eliminate these food deserts in your district and throughout the city?
Riggenbach: You know, that's an incredible challenge that’s something that I think the whole council has been very focused on since the Kroger closed the two stores, in the East Bluff anon Harmon Highway. The reality is the big box grocers aren't as interested in inner city markets like this as they were years ago. We've actually had conversation with Kroger and others about a smaller scale, I guess you would call it an urban-style market. We haven't had any luck; I'm not making any announcements about that today, unfortunately.
But I think it's important to realize that we do have some smaller grocers coming into play here; in the East Bluff in particular, Tienda Mexicana at the corner of Frye and Wisconsin, they have an incredible meat counter (and) fresh produce. So there are some small glimmers of hope happening. I think what we want to avoid is having folks rely on the dollar-type stores as being their source of groceries. So we continue to look and try to see how we can (incentivize) somebody to offer that kind of a model in the East Bluff and on the South Side. But I think if there's anything we've learned in the last few years with COVID, the whole retail landscape is so dramatically different than it was two years ago, that everybody's still trying to get their feet on the ground as we regroup and move forward.
You mentioned COVID-19 and coming out of the pandemic. Obviously, the city is getting a good amount of federal and state funding. How do you think the city is going to be best to use these ARPA and CARES dollars?
Riggenbach: You know, I'm very excited about the programs that we put in place with this first wave of money that we've gotten. The East Village Growth Cell TIF has a residential rehab program that's been in place about 10 years. That offers homeowners the opportunity to make improvements to their home and receive a grant from the city for half of that. So if you have a $20,000 roof you're putting on, you can apply – under certain conditions, of course – for a $10,000 grant.
Well, we've established that same concept for the qualified census tracts for the ARPA money, and as soon as we get the staff in place – and hiring is just as difficult at the city as it is at many of the restaurants, as we know – but as soon as we get the staff in place, we're going to open that up so folks outside of the TIF will be able to avail themselves of that as well. So to offer money to the homeowners, I think, is a very viable, a very appropriate use of the ARPA money.
We've also done a similar program for facade improvements for businesses that they're able to access money – again, under conditions; you know, this is the government after all – but we're offering grants for businesses that need to make physical plant improvements as well. And, at the last Council meeting, we had that same type of program for nonprofits. It was about $450,000 that we made available to our nonprofits in the city to make some funds available for them as well. So I think the city is really doing a good job of focusing on who was impacted the most by COVID-19 and the shutdowns, and how can we help those folks get back on their feet and regain some of the ground that was lost.
How can the city address its need for more affordable housing options?
Riggenbach: You know, affordable housing is something that I feel very strongly about and I'm so pleased at the opportunities that we've created in the East Bluff. Peoria Opportunities Foundation, POF, went through a very arduous process to get tax credits and IHDA – that's the Illinois Housing Development Authority – funding to develop 30 housing units in the East Bluff. These are new construction, 25 single-family homes and four duplexes, and these are what we call affordable. They're energy efficient; they don't have the drafty windows, so your utility bill will be reasonable. And the rent that you pay will be based on a sliding scale, based on your income. I would like to think that this can be an example for other parts of town as well.
Often times, when we talk about affordable housing, the hair on people's neck stands up and stereotypes get talked about, and I think that's really unfortunate. And, again, this POF project has also reached out to the churches, the schools, the businesses in the East Bluff area, and has put together a resource book. So everybody moving into these houses has a booklet – which is also available online, for those that prefer that – but they can find out if there's a sandwich shop down the street, or who to contact if their kids need help at school. So it's not just providing the housing, but it's providing the resources to make folks part of the neighborhood. And I think if we can show that that can be done in the East Bluff, it will become more attractive for other parts of town as well.
With population loss in the city and the way the districts were kind of shaped up through the most recent census, obviously we had to redraw the boundaries. How did you feel the redistricting process went and how it affected each district?
Riggenbach: I think the process went remarkably smooth. Obviously, there was some grumblings; you know, you can have this redistricting without somebody being aggravated with you. But if you look at the map, I think the lines are very clear and distinct. The population shifts are what dictated the changes that were made. The Fifth District, for instance, lost over 5,000 people; the First District needed to pick up about 4,000 people. So you can't keep the geography the same and have those numbers.
My district, the Third District, expanded into the North Valley, which I think has a natural flow, because many of the challenges that I'm dealing with and that folks are dealing with in the East Bluff are similar in the North Valley. I think that's a much easier flow than including them in with the South Side, for instance, because whether we like it or not Interstate 74 is a very clear boundary line.
A big concern for many residents this summer is going to be increasing utility expenses, particularly for Ameren customers. What efforts are being made to possibly help offset those higher costs?
Riggenbach: Well, a number of years – I think it's about 10 years – ago, the city got into energy aggregation, it's called, and we hired basically an energy broker to help us shop around to find the best rates to offer our citizens. Unfortunately, that contract expires at the end of May, so we are at the mercy of the market like everybody else right now. But the one thing I want to just remind people of is that we do have this broker out there. So while there's going to be some short-term pain – and it doesn't appear right now that there's any way around that – we're still looking down the road to have a longer-term contract that hopefully will be more favorable to the consumer than the current market conditions.
In my role as a financial advisor by day, we have the perfect storm out there with inflation, with the Ukraine situation. There's just so many dynamics out there; if we can see some relief in one of those areas, the word on the street is that we'll see some relief in all of the areas. So I don't have a quick answer for the immediate frustration folks are going to feel when they see those Ameren bills. But just know this is something that we take seriously, and while the city doesn't control that, we can continue to shop for a better supply.
A new state law is changing how the city collects fees from video gaming machines, with those being split evenly between the establishment owners and the gaming companies. How will those changes affect these businesses and the city, and what possibilities can be considered to lessen the impact?
Riggenbach: You know, this is, in my opinion as a councilman, a very unfortunate overreach from the state. I think the current system had been working very efficiently, and I'm not sure what was the driving force – with all of the many issues facing us in Illinois – that this popped up is something that needed to get done this year. We still have our corporation counsel looking at home rule, and at first blush it appears that home rule doesn't apply in this case. But we want to make sure that we don't make changes unnecessarily, let's put it that way. We're going to be looking at that with a fine tooth comb, and one of my colleagues mentioned perhaps having a sliding scale, so that if you're a bar or restaurant owner (with) one or two machines, that your fee would be different than one of the cafés that specializes in gaming. There's a couple examples in the state of Illinois of municipalities that do that. So we're trying not to rush into something but make sure that what we do is thoughtful, and has the minimal impact on those small “mom and pop” operators.
Do you want to be able to do that, though, without lessening the amount of revenue that the city has been able to get from these machines?
Riggenbach: Clearly, we need revenue. So if we're going to lose $250,000, that has to be made up somewhere. So that's the dilemma we find ourselves in, and that's why we don't want to just have a knee-jerk reaction. We'll want to make sure that we have a thoughtful reaction at the end of the day.
What else do you see as the biggest infrastructure needs in the Third District?
Riggenbach: Roads in general is something that, whether I'm at Menards or I'm at the neighborhood association meeting, roads is something that comes up over and over and over again. We are trying to be strategic about how that happens, and our CIP – the Capital Improvement Program – for this year is at the highest level it's been, I think, in the years I've been on council.
In the East Bluff in particular, we were able to secure funding for Wisconsin Avenue, which is, I would say, the main street of the East Bluff. So from Forrest Hill all the way to Arcadia, which is just by Glen Oak School, we’re going to be able to recreate that segment. There's several widths – not that I'm a civil engineer, but I love to talk like I am – there's many cross-sections there that need to be unified: we go from having a wide road to a narrow road, and that's all within a matter of blocks. So we want to make that consistent. We want to make it have improved drainage, and again, lighting as much as we can possibly improve that as we do these projects.
But as far as roads, our pavement condition index – the PCI – is something that we put in place about 10 years ago, and we're in our third or fourth rendition of that now. So we actually get a report that says which streets have the worst underlying infrastructure, which streets have the most traffic on, so that we're not just reacting to the most phone calls, but we're actually reacting to the streets that carry the most traffic and are in the worst condition.