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Q&A: Candidate Benjamin Nicks Jr. wants to have Peoria council conversations

Benjamin Nicks, Jr., pastor at St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church, is a candidate for an At-Large city council seat in Peoria.
Collin Schopp
Benjamin Nicks, Jr., pastor at St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church, is a candidate for an at-large city council seat in Peoria.

Benjamin Nicks, Jr., pastor of Peoria’s St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church, says he wants to become a city council member to serve the people of Peoria and foster conversation.

Nicks is one of 10 candidates on the ballot in the April 4 consolidated election for five at-large seats around the horseshoe.

WCBU plans to interview each candidate ahead of Election Day.

Nicks spoke with WCBU reporter Collin Schopp about the current city council, economic development and violent crime.

This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Why did you decide to run for this position and why should voters elect you?

Nicks: I decided to run because I wanted to be useful to the people and citizens of Peoria. I believe that I can be a person who can build bridges and connect with other council members in order to find a common ground so that we can move forward with an agenda to get things done. I kind of feel like the city council has not been effective recently. I have stated that to them, when I approached them and in the open forum was able to speak to them directly. And I stated that to them. I don't think that the citizens of Peoria have time, nor do they want the city council to be stagnant nor not finding solutions to the issues of what's happening within the community today.

And in your opinion, what are some of the most pressing issues that most urgently need addressed in Peoria right now?

Nicks: Top two things, I would say, are dealing with crime and economic development.

You mentioned that you believe that the city council is currently stagnant or that it has been ineffective over the last few years; what is something you would change about the way the city council or Peoria is run?

Nicks: Not necessarily changing how it's run. But making the communication between the council members is what I believe needs to happen. One of the things that I saw during the Cure Violence vote, a number of the members didn't seem to reach out to the other members to talk and discuss about what needed to be done. And I think since some individuals were kind of sitting in their own silo, not reaching out and trying to branch out was an issue there. I think from my personal point of view, knowing how I am, I am someone that is going to talk to others, I'm going to ask and try to get information so to see where we're at and where we can be together on the same page.

I think the Cure Violence example provides a very good hypothetical here. Let’s say you were on city council during that time period, those votes, what’s a way you would have reached across the aisle to try to keep the conversation going?

Nicks: Alright, one of the first things I would have done is just get with the other council members, just as a feeler, to see where their mind was on the issue. And I don't think that that was done or if it was done, it was not productive. Sometimes, you can have a conversation with someone and not get to the real heart of the issue. I know there's a meme out there that's going around where you'll see two people standing in front of a number. And on one side, you see a six and then from the other person's point of view, it's a nine. They're looking at the same thing. But they have a different point of view about what they're seeing. But the thing about that is you have to have that conversation to see, well, why do you see it as a nine? And why do you see it as a six? And then once you can get there, you're seeing the same thing. So I don't think people have productive conversations. And I think sometimes when you get into a conversation, it can become combative, or people get defensive. And that's not what I'm about. What I'm about is trying to figure out the bridge, you know, I understand where I'm at, I understand where you're at, but how do we get there together? The choice of words, how you present something to someone is, I believe, what the breakdown was during that period. And I'm not one that's going to put up a wall and try to make things difficult.

You’re a pastor, how would you bring your experience in that role into a civil service position like this one?

Nicks: Well, as a pastor, you do serve your congregation and you do serve the community where your church resides. So in my line of work in dealing with that, I have to be open minded because whenever I approach someone, I can't immediately jump out and start talking about Jesus Christ. Right? Some people get turned off by that. You have to start conversations and meet people where they are at. And so that's what I would do, I would meet people where they are at in a conversation, and then gradually move to what the subject is or what the main issue is. I know there's timing with a lot of different things. So you have to be mindful of that. But the ultimate goal is to make sure that the person you're speaking with, when you get done with the conversation, we may disagree, but we do not have to be disagreeable when we disagree. And so my goal is to make sure that all the sides are heard, all the information is put out there, so that a well- informed decision can be made.

What is something you would like to see the city do about gun violence and violent crime?

Nicks: Well, the Cure Violence is a step. It's not going to, I mean, the name “Cure Violence” is not exactly what it is. But it is a step in the right direction. I believe there are a number of things that we could do outside of that, outside of Cure Violence. We could look at the economic development in the city. Some crimes, not all, are based on finances; it's the lack of money, the need for money. So we can look at helping and assisting people to find good jobs, earning good wages so that they can support their family. We need to look at how we can, I don't want to use the term cater, but how do we entice and bring other businesses to the area? Or what can we do to have businesses want to invest in this community to where we can get good paying jobs for people. And then we can also look at the surrounding communities. There's an individual right now that is starting up a transportation service that is carrying people to Normal to go work for Rivian. So, he has a shuttle service that he's providing. So there's different things that we can do in order to find gainful employment for people.

How can the city encourage economic development and business growth, particularly in the neighborhoods where discussions about revitalization are ongoing, like South Peoria and the East Bluff?

Nicks: Right, one of the things I think people should really consider is, it's not always, you're not always going to find a business that wants to move into an area. So what you have to consider is how do you get the people to where the businesses are. So we need to look at our transportation services. Particularly, let's just say as an example: there is a business that has a third shift position that's open and buses don't run overnight. So you have to find a way to provide transportation for those individuals that may want to work, may want to work that third shift, making 20 or so many dollars an hour, how do we get them there? So we may need to look at how we get with the transportation system to see if we can encourage them to open up some new lines at various times of day or a specific shuttle service for a particular company for a particular time. So that way, we can allow people to see that we are trying to work with them to help them out where they are at. Because eventually, if you're in a good-paying job, you get yourself financially stable, you might not always need that service. But at least initially, let's get something going so that we can get the ball rolling.

Another area with an ongoing conversation about revitalization is downtown. How can the city bring more to the downtown?

Nicks: Well, I've only lived in the Peoria area for the past three years. So I'm not sure what things used to be like, I can only look forward. So, looking forward, what are you offering? Okay, so if you go downtown now, I mean, I have seen some restaurants and I have seen a few different things down there. But if you are going to do something and you want to attract people, you have to provide those entertainment things, activity things that people want to do. Now, we are a diverse community. So you cannot just cater to one side, you have to open up all the activities and every entertainment thing that you want to do. You have to make it across the board, that everyone can do it. So we may need to look at various different businesses that want to start or may want to open up something downtown, making sure that we're open minded with who's doing what, and then also moving forward and looking forward. Not just food or bars. I mean, there's other things, I mean, we do, you always have museums, which there is already, but maybe more activity type things. I mean, the riverboat is gone now. Something that can appeal to families, appeals to individuals, so that they can come downtown and enjoy some of their time off and want to spend money while they're down there.

Another hot topic at city council, recently leading even to some special sessions, has been legalized marijuana and the licensing of dispensaries in Peoria. They've licensed a handful and there have been debates about whether or not they should continue adding these businesses to the area. Where do you stand on that? Should Peoria keep licensing dispensaries, and should Peoria consider businesses that would offer on-site consumption of the product?

Nicks: That's a good question. Being a pastor dealing in that area, you're going to assume it's an automatic no. And the reason why I say that is based on religion. But in my role as a city council member, I have to consider all the benefits. Financial benefits that could help the city. One of the things we have to consider is you don't want to saturate the market with anything. So I mean, if the handful of dispensaries that they have now, that might be enough. You can over saturate the market, and then it won't be beneficial to anybody. We have to look at that. And then we also need to consider on-site consumption. That's another issue because when somebody comes to the facility, they're not taking it home to use it at home, where do they go when they leave there? And will that cause an issue? It just might so happen that they might get pulled over, now you're putting the police in another position that has to deal with somebody that has smoked, or they may smell and it may cause and lead to other things. We don't want to put people in bad positions. And we don't want to put our police force in a bad position where they're dealing with unnecessary issues or unnecessary stops. So I think that the city will have to take a moment and have a good discussion about moving forward with doing any more than what they've already done. Right now, with not having a lot of data to support a position. I would just say I would have to reserve that to a later time.

What would you describe as the big ideas you bring to the table with your candidacy?

Nicks: Big ideas, mainly servicing the people. I think this is a position where we have to consider everyone that we are servicing. We service the whole community, the city of Peoria. I think sometimes that gets lost, because our personal position might not always be what the people want. Our personal stance on something might not always be what's best for the community. And sometimes you have to take a backseat to what your personal desires are in order to make sure that you're doing what's right by the citizens that you have been elected to service. And that's the key thing. And the key word is service. I think if we all keep that in mind, and I know it's at the forefront of my mind because being a minister, service is all I do, I think we would be better off with how we proceed forward.

You mentioned that you moved to Peoria in the last three years. Do you think that your fresh perspective offers anything unique to the city council?

Nicks: I think me being new, as a new set of eyes. Yes, I see things differently than they do because many of the members have lived here, grown up here and they have a different viewpoint. But also with that also comes a different set of what I would call values. And the reason why I say that is because I don't have, if you want to say, some of the baggage that some other members may have because they have this thing where they have a certain face that they may have to keep going. And they may have a certain position that they have to take a stand on, because they've already said that. Me, I'm here to make a difference. I want things to be better. I don't want us to become a community where we're slowly or gradually going downhill, where the people feel like their government is not working for them. I want them to feel that their government is doing right by them and making sure that their needs are being met.

What level of optimism do you have for Peoria’s future right now? And where would you like to see it after four years?

Nicks: I have a high level of optimism. Peoria is a great area to be in. I think that we have a lot to offer. You know, I think that if we do some good strategic planning, that we can prepare ourselves to be set up for greater things in the future. I think if we can really look at how we target some of the things that we want to do in the city, maybe we can build upon what's already here and make things better. I know like, as an example, talk about state tournaments for high school, right? Maybe get football, come through here, basketball, come through here. But maybe we could do something to build up some of the areas around here to make our stadiums or another outlet, so that we can bring more here on a regular basis. I know, cross country is here every year, pretty much right, at Detweiller Park? But basketball moved away. So what can we do to bring that back? What can we do to you know, remind people that Peoria is a place they want to come to?

Is there anything we haven’t touched on you want to add or expand on?

Nicks: I think the only thing that I would like to just say is that my heart is really in making sure that what's going on here in Peoria really is for the benefit of the people. We have seen, in the past couple of years, how the federal government has been working and like the past year or two, I have not really appreciated what's been going on at city council. I think that our people deserve better. And I think that they want better. Now I want to help provide better for them. I think they should have the confidence in knowing that the people that they have placed on city council are working for their best interests, and not for personal interests, or they're not being, and I did use the term ignorant when I spoke with them, because they're not taking the time to learn, which being ignorant means you can learn. There's room for that. I think that they really need to have somebody there that is looking out for their best interest and that's what I want to do.

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.