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Q&A: Ali discusses Civic Center funding proposal, city growth, affordable housing, pipelines

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali discussed a broad range of topics in her latest interview with WCBU.
Joe Deacon
Peoria Mayor Rita Ali discussed a broad range of topics in her latest interview with WCBU.

The Peoria City Council is showing support for a plan to issue $20 million in bonds to help the Civic Center pay for a long list of needed capital upgrades, including a new ice plant for the Carver Center hockey rink.

At this week's council meeting, members gave city administrators a green light to draft an ordinance that will come up for a vote on March 13.

In this month's conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Peoria Mayor Rita Ali discusses a broad range of topics, including the benefits of this agreement to fund the Civic Center improvements.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

At this week’s City Council meeting, the council discussed the proposed plan to contribute $20 million toward the capital needs projects at the Peoria Civic Center. What advantages or disadvantages do you see to this plan?

Mayor Rita Ali: I was so proud of the council to unanimously support the $20 million in bonds that we plan to take out to support the capital improvements that are in need of by the Civic Center. I mean, their capital needs total about $47 million; $25 million of those will be covered through a state grant, thanks to leader (State Rep.) Jehan Gordon-Booth for leading that effort. So, that leaves a balance of another $22 million. Well, the city voted to prepare an ordinance to take out bonds to support that.

The advantage is that we bring an asset of the community up to good repair. It helps to add to the quality of life of our community, helps to support the entertainment and other activities that take place within the Civic Center, including the Rivermen, because it does incorporate about $3.5 million to replace the ice plant. So, many advantages. The only disadvantages associated with it: you have to pay it back. It's money that we are borrowing, and we have to pay it back. So we'll have a schedule for a payback.

And where's that money coming, again just so people know, where the money to pay it back is coming from?

Ali: Some of that money is coming from HRA (hotel, restaurant and amusement) taxes, some of that money is just coming from our general revenue, our general fund, excuse me.

So as you said, the item that's gotten the most attention among the capital needs is replacing the ice plant; it's one of many key components to the lease discussions between the Civic Center and the Peoria Rivermen. I realized the city is not involved in those lease talks, and I understand that the city cannot make the $20 million deal contingent upon a contract between the team and the Civic Center. But in your mind, how vital is a new lease to this capital investment?

Ali: Well, I think it's very important that we retain the Rivermen. There's certainly an interest by the public and the city council as well in terms of retaining this professional hockey (team) right here in Peoria. So these improvements will help, I think, to bring the two parties together with mutual interest in negotiating a fair process for closing the deal on a lease. So, there's a high expectation that the parties will come together and really get the job done.

Some council members have voiced concerns about the Civic Center not planning ahead of time to afford some of these capital needs or having issues covering their operational costs. What are your thoughts on those concerns?

Ali: I just disagree with that because the Civic Center does not have the ability to levy for taxes. They are very dependent on both the HRA taxes as well as the revenues that they get from the entertainment or events that they have. So that's what they're limited to. Most of those revenues support their operating costs and don't go as far as replacement of a roof or big capital expenses. So there has to be some other funding mechanisms, and the City of Peoria just happens to have some responsibility for the capital needs of this important asset.

A final vote on the plan is set for the next meeting on March 14. Do you see any potential roadblocks to an approval?

Ali: I think the light is green. I think that city council was pleased with its position to support this, separate from a lease agreement, but again with an expectation that the two parties will come together and negotiate a long-term lease, not a one-year or two-year lease, but perhaps a five-year lease.

Another action taken by the council was approval of the annexation — or pre-annexation, as it's sometimes called — of the 90 acres along Cedar Hill Drive in Medina Township. Several people who live in that area were opposed to the annexation, and councilman Denis Cyr was reluctant in supporting the measure because he “wants to be a good neighbor.” How are annexation agreements like this one in the city's best interest?

Ali: I want to be a good neighbor too, and I don't think anybody on the council wants to damage any relationships with the people within Medina Township or nearby. But I think that there's been some miscommunication, some fears generated that the city is attempting to grab the land and make it look more like an urban versus a rural area and that's just not true. The city was exercising its right.

The city did not go out and find this property owner; the property owner came to the city and asked that the land be subdivided. In order to do that, we had to have a pre-annexation agreement. There were six pre-annexation similar agreements that were done with the village of Dunlap, and nobody complained. There was no outcry.

I think there's a perception of the bigger city of Peoria is wanting to put multifamily housing, affordable housing, low-income housing (on the property). Those are just unfounded concerns and fears. In reality, it's not likely that we will even fully annex that property; there is some land in between so it's not contiguous. There's some land in between that is owned by Medina Township that they'll probably never release it to be annexed to the city. So it's very unlikely, but the city's protecting his future interests.

I’ve asked you this before, but some of the people who talked to me noted that this area is 10 miles from City Hall, and there could be issues with police and fire coverage or elevating infrastructure to the city standards there — and again, I know this is a pre-annexation, so it only would happen if the city limits connect to the property. But does the city risk becoming overextended with annexations like these?

Ali: What we're going to do, and I think we're probably going to make it part of our strategic planning process, is to meet as a council and really take a look at how big do we want to be as a city? What size do we want to be? Where's our limits? Where — how far north do we want to go, now and in the future, and make some decisions along that way. I think that in our planning, we should have more discussions with Medina Township, more communication. I think that we should have more discussions with the village of Dunlap, so we're not working in a vacuum and when things like this come to the surface, that nobody is surprised by it because we're communicating.

Caterpillar and the UAW seem to have averted a potential strike this week. How important was it to the community to avoid a work stoppage?

Ali: I think it's great. I got notified early this morning (Wednesday) that there was a tentative agreement reached and hope that turns into a signed agreement. It's important that we don't have these type of labor tensions. They're stressful for everybody. They're stressful for families, for workers, and for the corporation as well. So, I'm glad that there's some mutual agreement that has been reached and I think it's good for Peoria overall.

The city is planning to build senior housing on the south side, but some residents there say that's not really what the area needs most. Is the plan developed by IDG Architects a few years ago still the city's vision for that MacArthur Corridor, and if so how does a senior housing project fit into that vision?

Ali: Let me give you some history on that. The history is that the City of Peoria wants to make MacArthur a strong corridor that has a businesses, a commercial corridor that may have some multipurpose units, that may even have some housing within the corridor. It's been a long time since any real development has taken place on MacArthur Highway, but we have funding for new infrastructure there.

We actually contracted with an organization about three years ago to do the pre-development for the MacArthur Corridor. So there was citizen input (and) the architects were hired to kind of create a visual of how MacArthur Highway might look once it's fully developed. Again, that was conceptual but very beautiful, in terms of the appearance of that video, and we all bought into the concept. Senior housing was not prohibited; as a matter of fact, as part of that comprehensive plan — I think is page 14 of that plan — it actually called for senior housing on MacArthur Corridor.

The issue that we have here, one, it's not the senior housing that some people think of senior housing. Most senior housing, many of the senior housing developments are 62-and-up. This development is 55-and-up — 55. That's not so elderly, in my opinion; I turned 55 quite a few years ago, in fact. There's a lot of interest, and the 55-and-up senior developments that we have in Peoria are in high demand. In fact, there's a two-year waiting list for one of them (and) there's a six-month waiting list for another. These types of developments are actually in high demand.

There's been a comparison to some of the 62-and-up developments that have a few vacancies, and again these are different types of developments. One of the types of 62-and-up is fully HUD-subsidized, non-tax-paying. This is fully tax-paying, and it has a variety of different apartments — from one bedroom, two bedroom, market-rate cost as well as income based. So it's really a different animal and the comparisons that are being made are not apples to apples.

I do want to say one more thing about this, if I may. The complaints are really based upon one organization wanting to develop in that particular area, that particular land that has been identified by Pivotal (Housing Partners) and the Peoria Opportunities Foundation. They stepped up with two projects: one multi-family near Shelley (Street), and one senior 55-and-up development, totaling $25 million in investment for Peoria’s south side. We have not seen that type (of) new housing development in over two decades. So no one else has stepped up, and we're really excited and hope that these projects go through IHDA (Illinois Housing Development Authority).

What about addressing affordable housing needs in that area, and all across the city? I believe that was a topic during this week's council meeting as well.

Ali: Yes, so there was a demonstration by (community development) director Joe Dulin earlier this week, and he provided kind of a comprehensive overview of affordable housing. Well, the south side is in greatest need of quality, affordable housing. We've been demolishing homes, older homes that were not repairable. The city owns a lot of land now that can be developed. There's lots of opportunity for multiple developers to come in and propose housing development projects, whether they're single family or multifamily, whether they're commercial or multi-use on MacArthur Corridor or various areas throughout the south side. The opportunities are there, and so we want developers to come forth and step up with proposals.

Another thing that was brought up during public comments this week was carbon dioxide pipelines and the potential impacts on the south side. I believe Wolf Carbon Solutions and ADM are considering a carbon capture pipeline to the BioUrja plant. What are your thoughts on the potential community risks, and what could the city do about this?

Ali: So I'm, along with other council members, working to get more educated on this proposed project. I have met with the company and they've indicated that this will help to reduce the fossil fuels, the toxics that are associated with the BioUrja plant. But then there's another potential risk that we're putting this pipeline in a densely populated area that is an environmental justice community, a lower income area, where people of color are disproportionately impacted. So I have concerns. I have concerns about this type of pipeline not being in a rural area; in most cases, it is targeted for rural areas. But (this is) in an area with a dense population and one of the most distressed areas of our city, so I'm very concerned. We're going to learn more (and) we're going to try to explore our options.

You issued a proclamation Tuesday honoring the fire department and Advanced Medical Transport for their “Race to the Top” program aimed at improving cardiac arrest survival. Andrew Rand of AMT says the partnership has produced significant results in the past year. How important was it for you to recognize these efforts publicly?

Ali: I was just thrilled. You know, the fire department and AMT haven't always had the greatest relationship in the past and that relationship has improved over time; the two entities work together well. This “Race to the Top” program has really, I think, brought workers from both organizations together, saving lives and being one of the, I think, top producers in terms of intervention with cardiac arrests. I think they're making a name for Peoria.

Lastly, getting back to the Civic Center for a moment. Carver Arena drew a sold-out crowd for the Bradley men's basketball game on Sunday against Drake for the Missouri Valley championship. How significant is it to see that kind of community support at the venue?

Ali: I think there were 10,400 people there. I was there. I wanted to cry, not just because we won, but just looking in the arena and seeing it at full capacity just brought so much joy. It's so important that we, again, invest in this entity. We need more marketing to take place, I think, for Rivermen events. It would be great to see the Rivermen events, Bradley basketball continue to grow in attendance. Our concerts are at peak attendance now, so it's very exciting to see these activities. Go Bradley Braves.

I was just going to say, do you want to send any thoughts or wishes to the Braves as they head to Arch Madness?

Ali: Absolutely. I'm a Bradley fan. I'm a Bradley alumna and I'm just, you know, a proud Peorian.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.