Q&A: Velpula envisions Peoria as Midwest's health care, biotech hub
Dr. Kiran Velpula has been an at-large Peoria City Council member since 2021, and he’s hoping to continue serving in that role.
An assistant professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria (UICOMP) whose research focuses on brain cancer, Velpula was appointed to the council to fill the vacancy created when Rita Ali became the city’s mayor.
Now he’s running for the first time to keep his seat, as one of three incumbents among the 10 candidates vying for the five at-large seats in the April 4 consolidated election.
In a conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Velpula details the direction he would like to see Peoria take in the next few years.
This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What inspired or motivated you to seek a full term as an at-large Peoria City Council member?
Kiran Velpula: So as you know, I am not an elected councilman to the City of Peoria; I took the spot of Rita Ali when she left as mayor. So when I went into the city council, my own goal, or my only goal was to see: how can I make Peoria a better place to live?
My vision to the city of Peoria is to make Peoria as the health care destination or a biotech corridor, because I live in that space and I feel that I am in a right position to articulate the fact that the city governance could take part in the advancement of health care in the city of Peoria. So this is one sole reason which made me think that I should go back and run again, because I started a few programs, started a few initiatives which will be completed only by me.
One of the initiatives that I started was a “middle school to medical school.” Basically what it means is, we are trying to integrate the students who are enrolled in middle school, (then) go to ICC (Illinois Central College), take a path from ICC to go to Bradley, and from Bradley to College of Medicine. It’s a pipeline; it’s a new project, it’s a new initiative. I don’t know whether it will be successful or not. We are still working on the operation standpoint. But at the same time, this provides an opportunity for a lot of employment in the healthcare sector, which probably is the most important health care opportunity in Peoria, that is the health care.
Why do you see so much potential for growth in health care in Peoria, specifically?
Velpula: The incoming of the cancer center (OSF HealthCare Cancer Institute) is one, and if you look around, when you drive from the Murray (Baker) Bridge, you see OSF (St. Francis) hospital, then followed by UnityPoint at this point, and then you see the College of Medicine, a full-fledged medical school. Drive around (and) you will find USDA (ag lab), you’ll find a lot of Ph.Ds. working in the fields of health care sciences, physical sciences, biologics. Basically we don’t realize, but we are a health care city. So I believe that is that is the reason why we think that health care could be the next holy grail to the city of Peoria.
Do you see that then as an economic boost for the city and to help the budgets, would you say?
Velpula: Of course, yes. But again, health care is a diffuse system; we don’t have like a vibrancy or we don’t have a goal, because it’s a service industry. But again, the vision of having a biotech company or start-ups or entrepreneurships in Peoria would help us realize that goal.
So we should always have an aspirational attitude. In a way, we say that “tomorrow is always better, hope is always there.” Gone are the days where Peoria is in the “no fly zone” for innovation and entrepreneurship. We are able to bring more companies into Peoria. We are able to articulate our thoughts to make Peoria as the next biomanufacturing hub. In fact, I’m actually working on a proposal where we are trying to bring ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds to raise startups (and) to invite biotech companies to come to Peoria and make it their home.
How have you grown into your role as a council member since being appointed, and have there been aspects of the position that you hadn’t expected?
Velpula: It was drinking from a fire hose. So, it’s good; I feel very privileged to go there and learn about the governance. It’s a blessing to be on the city council. It’s a blessing to help people. It’s a blessing for me and I have a lot of chances to fill my knowledge gap in governance. You can do a lot of things being on a city council, especially when you are a cheerleader for the city of Peoria.
In what ways has this experience over the past two years prepared you for another term?
Velpula: So I just started learning about budgets. It’s a big budget; the city of Peoria has a $265 million budget, and I also am a part of (deciding how to use) the $47 million from ARPA funds, the COVID relief funds. So we’ve got some money flowing in our way and we were able to spread that money into various aspects such as economic development, land banking, and helping a lot of public infrastructure work. Basically, it helped me to look at and consolidate my vision to help Peoria grow as the next health care city of the Midwest.
Aside from the biotech, the health care, what other goals or proposals or do you have for a potential next term?
Velpula: So, I strongly believe that talent retention is the most critical thing that we are missing. If you ask me saying that, “Can you bring Tesla to Peoria?” No, we can’t. But what we can do is we can make Peoria as the next workforce capital of the Midwest. We are limited with a lot of geographical limitations, but it doesn’t stop us from growing into a workforce capital. So I think we are in a good place at this moment.
What different perspectives do you think that you personally bring to the city council?
Velpula: I’m not cut from a political cloth. I’m a scientist in my profession, in my day job. We are one of the very few (groups of) people in the world who are paid to fail; so, every day I go to the lab, I fail in my research. I go back home and read why we failed. We come back again with the same vigor to address the problem. So basically, what I’m trying to say here is: I am prepared to fail. But at the same time, I will learn quickly and my learning is to help the city of Peoria to grow.
How do you think the city should go about its budget concerns and addressing its finances, particularly with the increasing police and fire pension obligations?
Velpula: In a way, I’ll say that the fire pensions were there before I was born, and it will be there even after I die. But the way I wanted to look at it is, how do we offset that? The way I look at that is to bring more entrepreneurship and innovations. We need to invest into bringing small businesses, small-to-medium businesses, (and) change the climate of Peoria in the sense, the business climate: make sure we don’t have any “red-tape-ism.” We allow people to come do their businesses, help the restaurants have a nightlife. That will help Peoria to bring the younger generation close to their motherland.
What more would you like to see Peoria do in terms of revitalizing distressed neighborhoods?
Velpula: Communication is the key; basically, we don’t communicate so well. We always sulk on things (and) we don’t really appreciate what Peoria has given. So I came from India, but then my first stop (in the U.S.) was at Case Western (Reserve University) in Cleveland. Me and my wife came to Peoria because Peoria offered jobs to us, and we became Peorians. This is my 15th year in the city of Peoria, and the city of Peoria always impresses me and my family. It is the positive narrative that is missing; we have to be very positive. We need to sell Peoria to Peoria. I understand we need to get more population; I understand we need to get more businesses. But what we have to do is to make sure the residents should be feeling comfortable to stay in Peoria.
How would you like to see the city encourage more economic development and more business growth?
Velpula: Innovation is the key. We have to think out of the box. Sometimes it fails; not everything will be successful. We need to be mindful because we are also investing the taxpayers’ dollars as well. But again, we have several opportunities where we can create a very positive business climate where we can attract the small-to-medium businesses.
For example, I was fortunate to help a robotics company called Pringle Robotics, which many of you might have known that their robots are serving in Avanti’s. We started with five employees, and now it grew into 50. This company has deployed more than 5,600 robots across the country. So I believe that health care and technology, investing in these two arms would be very helpful.
One of the readings I had was from the city of Columbus (Ohio). If you look at the path of how Columbus became what it is today, it started getting investments from 2017 to 2021, where 2020 peaked the most. Two of the most important companies that received, or that were recipients of those funds are a health care industry called Olive (AI), and autonomous robots. So basically, if you look at the way other cities grow, you have to invest, you have to be prepared. You also have to have the commercial facilities for people to come over. You have to have a research lab. You have to have a functional atmosphere for the businesses to acquire that place, make sure that they feel very comfortable.
In summary then, what would your message be to Peorians to have them vote for you for a term on the city council?
Velpula: Let’s be positive. We always think that the best days are ahead of us; it is true, and we always have to believe that tomorrow is always a better day. For that, we need to be having a very positive atmosphere, positive attitude. We definitely need to have all of us working together to make Peoria the next health care city of the Midwest.