Q&A: Mayor Ali discusses cannabis regulation, mental health hospitals, passenger rail bid
Peoria city leaders continue to grapple with how to regulate adult-use recreational cannabis businesses.
After recent heated discussions during city council sessions, the city held two public meetings and launched an online survey last week to get community input.
A discussion on the feedback from those public meetings is on Tuesday's city council agenda, while the survey continues through Thursday.
Along with possibly amending zoning regulations, a moratorium on dispensaries, prioritizing social equity applicants, and allowing on-site consumption are among the actions being considered.
In her latest monthly conversation with reporter Joe Deacon, Peoria Mayor Rita Ali discusses how that public input will guide the city's direction on cannabis regulation, along with other topics such as mental health facilities, smart street lighting, and the proposed passenger rail line to Chicago.
This transcript has been lightly edited.
The city recently had some public meetings and conducted a survey on adult-use recreational cannabis and dispensaries, and whether Peoria should maybe cap the number of dispensaries or allow on-site consumption, change zoning regulations, many things like that. What have you heard about these issues and what are your thoughts on making changes?
Mayor Rita Ali: Well, we don't have the data, the input that’s compiled yet for the council to consider. But we certainly wanted to have these sessions to collect information from the public. There are various opinions on the council about cannabis. Certainly recreational cannabis is now legal in Illinois, so we have provisions for cannabis businesses within Peoria.
But there are some council members who have received feedback from some of their constituents that question whether we should limit the number of cannabis businesses, whether there should be a moratorium on cannabis businesses. So we thought, 'Let's get some broader input from the community.' So there's a survey that we've collected information from; we've held two sessions that were managed by Stacy Peterson, our strategic communications director, and so we're anxious to see what the public has to say.
The discussions you mentioned have kind of been heated around the horseshoe about what to do with cannabis. Why has this become such a divisive topic, do you think?
Ali: Yeah, I think it's a controversial topic. I think it was controversial when the state legislature approved Illinois to allow legalized marijuana, recreational cannabis. So it continues to be controversial; people have personal opinions. Some people feel that we should not allow it, that maybe it affects a person's — that there's some type of addiction associated with it. There's all these various personal opinions that come into play.
I think one of the other topics that's been brought up is about the social equity aspect of these dispensaries and considering those approvals. What do you think the city should do in that regard?
Ali: Right. So there was a business that was a social equity business that actually went through all the steps in terms of seeking approval, and it was recommended by the zoning commission that we approve. But it was at the same point that the council was trying to make some decisions, so that issue was deferred for 30 days. Hopefully, this business gets approved, in my opinion, because they went through all the steps that we required them to do (and) they were approved by the zoning board. So, hopefully they make it through before any changes are made.
It's been suggested to me, with adult use cannabis now legalized, these businesses are being regulated fairly strictly, but they're almost similar to liquor stores, which aren't nearly as regulated to that level. You don't want them all next to each other or anything like that. But are we at a point where they're going to be more and more (dispensaries) coming, do you think?
Ali: Well, not if there's a moratorium, not if there's a limit placed on them. You know, there's different opinions in terms of whether they should be beside each other. But there's some limitations in terms of there's some space limitations that are required by the state of Illinois — 1,500 feet, in some cases, that they have to be separate from each other. But again, it's legal but each community has a right (to place restrictions). There's some communities within our region that have decided there's going to be zero such businesses.
With UnityPlace set to offer youth mental health services at the former Heddington Oaks site and OSF HealthCare announcing plans to build a large behavioral health hospital here, Peoria is on its way to becoming a regional hub for mental health services. What advantages do you see from that for the city?
Ali: Right now we have a situation where the need is greater than our capacity to provide services. We send youth and adults to Chicago, primarily, because we don't have the beds to serve our constituents that have mental health issues. So the fact that UnityPoint is increasing its capacity for our youth population, and that in the near future, OSF will add 100 beds in expanding for mental health capacity, I think is wonderful for our community. The need is great; it's probably greater than even those new additions that we have coming.
Obviously, this will be not just for Peoria (as) there will be a regional draw, it would seem.
Ali: It will. You know, I think that it's going to certainly better serve our Peoria area community, our residents, that, again, we're sending them to Chicago because we can't serve them. So I think it's really designed — and I've talked to both entities — really designed to better serve those individuals that live within our area.
What are the latest developments in the effort to bring passenger rail service back to Peoria?
Ali: So we're moving forward. We have a contract with Patrick Engineering and Hanson (Professional Services) and some others that are on that team, developing two applications: an application for funding for planning (and) an application to get into the Federal Railroad Administration's Corridor Identification Program. Getting in that program is very important for us because it puts us in their pipeline for infrastructure planning, for technical assistance, and really helping us to remove the barriers and move forward with our rail line from Peoria to Chicago and back.
So when might you hear about that corridor application?
Ali: Well, one application is due Dec. 1, and then the other RFP — request for proposals—– has not actually come out yet. It will come out this quarter, the last quarter of this year. So by Dec. 31, that application will come out, and it will probably have, I don't know, a 60-90 day due deadline. So I would suspect that we would hear by spring or summer.
How optimistic are you that this is all going to come to fruition?
Ali: I am optimistic, and I'm optimistic because we have a good strong corridor, we have a good plan. We have wonderful stakeholders between here and all along the route between here and Chicago. We have communication that has been taking place between the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) and Amtrak and we're gaining momentum. So I am optimistic.
You're still not concerned that the price tag is too prohibitive?
Ali: I think, with the new infrastructure bill, that we're going to be in a pipeline. We're not going to be able to pay for it all in one year, but it's designed to be paid for over a period of several years.
The city council recently approved spending $3.5 million on tech equipment for the police department, such as body cameras and in-car cameras and some tasers as well. Why are these upgrades necessary, and how will they help the ongoing efforts to reduce violent crime?
Ali: So the product is called Axon, and it actually brings our technology more up to date. Much of our technology is getting old, outdated. This new technology will put us under one platform for video evidence systems, and it will actually help our officers to be more efficient and more effective in their work. For example, with the new system, if an officer pulls out a gun or pulls out a taser, their video camera will come on instantly. They don't have to turn it on; that's what the new technology will do. So there are tools and features within this new technology that will avoid some of the manual tasks that our officers or police personnel have to do. So it's going to save money (and) it's going to make us more effective in the work that they do.
As the city works to modernize local infrastructure, you recently joined State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth and other city leaders to showcase state funding for improved street lighting in certain neighborhoods. What improvements are being made and where, and how will this advance in the future?
Ali: Well, the improvements are being made all over the city and we're very thankful to leader Jehan Gordon-Booth for the $2.5 million that she secured from the state. The City of Peoria is adding another $800,000 to that so that we can have the proper lighting, adequate lighting in every district, every council district. So it's all over the city. We're lighting up Peoria with smart technology, in many cases, LED lighting that is more efficient, more cost savings for the taxpayers, making our streets more walkable, safer. People don't realize how important infrastructure and lighting is to public safety.
When you say smart lighting, what does that regard?
Ali: When I say smart lighting, one, I'm talking about LED lighting, but also lighting that is capable of holding technology. Technology that may record information, that may track information that may actually collect data that can be important to traffic or safety or even like the license plate readers.
The license plate readers still remain a bit of a controversial issue. But you think that technology still will assist the police, though?
Ali: They say that it does, and I think it's actually helped us to capture some criminals.
Another funding announcement you recently participated in was the jump-start $500,000 for the “Peoria Cradle to Career” initiative. Can you tell us more about what that initiative is and how it will benefit South side residents?
Ali: Yes, so the community came together over a year ago — we have over 50 stakeholders that want to help to transform the south side of Peoria, zip code 61605, which is very distressed, one of the most distressed in the nation. But we have a plan for transforming that community. It takes funding; we submitted a federal grant for almost $30 million. We're anxious to hear back, probably early next year.
But the community has come together to kind of jump start that through a grant provided by U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos (of) half a million dollars. We're assessing the residents — especially those that have children — we're assessing their needs: their workforce needs, their housing needs, their health care needs, their education needs, and then beginning to identify the resources that we can wrap around to support those families.
If the $30 million would come through, what would that money go toward and how would it be used to benefit these families?
Ali: Much of it goes to staffing. For example, we would hire 30 family resource navigators. Right now we've hired three to begin the assessment work, but we would hire 30 that will go into the homes and help to provide supports and connect the families to resources. We would hire a good number of education support specialists, that would be liaisons between the schools and the families and the children to connect to education resources and tutoring and various other supports. We would also hire technology coordinators, those that can make sure that all the families are connected to broadband, high-speed Wi-Fi — so that they're able to access the information on jobs, on health care, on resources that can benefit their better quality of life.
In that area, jobs are a key factor. There's a food desert issue there that also would play into it. How can some of this money help in those regards?
Ali: So again, it will help to identify those housing needs. There are some programs that we have in the community that help to replace doors and windows and weatherization items and roofs, and some people don't know about it or how to apply. So, the family resource navigators, the staffing, would help to connect and help to assist with the application for those programs. But also we're working with the Peoria Housing Authority now to apply — probably in the spring — for what's called a “Choice Neighborhoods” program. That's a multimillion dollar grant opportunity through HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) to provide housing in specific areas. We're actually looking to target the Harrison Homes area for that opportunity.
Speaking of the Harrison Homes, what have you heard in the latest of redeveloping the former Harrison and McKinley school sites?
Ali: We had the counselors of real estate come in, and we worked with the Peoria Area Association of Realtors (and) applied for a grant, received a national grant to bring in these counselors of real estate — they're experts who travel all over the nation to provide some advice and support. They brought together so many residents from the south side, as well as community agencies and not-for-profits and those that provide services to the area. (They) explored and brainstormed, “what can we do with the spaces at Harrison and McKinley schools once those buildings are demolished?” We have some great recommendations that have come out of that work.
Can you share what any of those are so far?
Ali: I can share in a little bit. We're working with PAAR on a press conference that's going to be coming up pretty soon.
At the recent Peoria Big Table event, one of the topics was about improving workforce development and making it more diversity accessible as well. What have you heard? What would you like to see happen in the area of workforce development in the community?
Ali: Talent development is a really big, important issue for our area. We're hearing it from our businesses, we're hearing it from potential businesses that may come here. They want people with the skills that they need to do the work. So, we're making talent development a very high priority for the city of Peoria. Making sure our residents who live here are skilled up, but also being able to attract talent that's not present here, to fill the many jobs. We have thousands and thousands of job openings right now, many that are unfilled because we don't have the individuals with the skills or credentials that are required by the employer.
Another topic that was discussed at Big Table was quality of life, enhancing the region. The keynote speaker, Bob Ross, talked about what they were able to do in Topeka, Kansas, as far as revitalizing downtown. What do you think Peoria can do to revitalize the downtown area?
Ali: We want to do that. Speaking of the Big Table, that was a great event. It always is a great event. So I compliment the organizers of that and it was well attended. The speaker — Topeka, Kansas has a great strategic plan; they have focused on downtown redevelopment.
It's a high priority for us. We had some visitors here, just not long ago, they were called a “site selectors” group. They came in and basically they said some really harsh things about our downtown. They called it kind of a doughnut hole. But they recommended that we give high, high, high priority to revitalizing our downtown to attract more people to our downtown area — and we're doing that. You know, there's a lot of things that are going on that people don't know about. I think that we have to better communicate that, and we're working on a plan to communicate what's currently happening downtown and what we plan for downtown.
So can you give me an example of something that's happening that people don't know about as far as revitalizing downtown?
Ali: Probably the Madison Avenue theater is one effort. There's a lot of people involved in renovating that old theater. Boy, I took a tour of it two weeks ago. It's amazing what has happened in there since people have gotten involved. It's got a high price tag on it, but there's a lot of private development, private investment that's going on there, and it's going to be a jewel for our community.