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Q&A: Mayor Ali addresses affordable housing, racial disparity, talent attraction

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali visited WCBU for her regular monthly interview.
Joe Deacon
Peoria Mayor Rita Ali visited WCBU for her regular monthly interview.

A recent study by Phoenix Community Development Services shows a deficiency in affordable housing for low-income Peoria residents.

Renters account for 40% of the city's households, and many minority households have rent burdens of 30% of their income or more.

The former McKinley and Harrison school sites offer possibilities for development of affordable housing. The Peoria Area Association of Realtors (PAAR) has recommended a public-private partnership over the next five years for redevelopment of those sites.

In her monthly conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Peoria Mayor Rita Ali says the city is putting forth a significant effort to create more affordable housing throughout the city.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

The Peoria Area Association of Realtors has recommended a public-private partnership over the next five years for redevelopment of the former McKinley and Harrison sites on the South Side. And a study by Phoenix Community Development Services shows a deficiency in affordable housing for low-income households. Forty percent of Peoria households are renters, and many minority households have rent burdens of 30% of their income or more. What can the city do to help address these housing issues?

Mayor Rita Ali: The city is, I would say, putting forth much effort in terms of trying to create more affordable housing throughout the city of Peoria, and that's housing both for the average income as well as lower income, senior population as well as the homeless. So we have been working with not-for-profit (organizations) as well as developers, the Phoenix organization, in terms of identifying plots that the city owns that can be made available for development.

We've also identified plots that are owned by private individuals that they're not using. In some cases, we've purchased that land or we're in the process of purchasing some of that land. Some of it’s land that has been just empty lots and not always taken care of. So there is plenty of opportunity for – more so than rehab – the new construction of housing in Peoria for the residents that need it. We've seen a lot of exodus from the South Side, for example, or the First District, into the northern part of the city, and that's because of the lack of affordable housing in that area.

What are your thoughts on the potential of a public-private partnership for the McKinley and Harrison locations?

Mayor Ali: Well, it's something that we've talked to Habitat (For Humanity) about for one thing; Habitat has an interest in actually constructing new housing on Peoria’s South Side. They've done a lot in the East Bluff, they've done a significant amount on the near North Valley. But now they're open to doing something on the South Side of Peoria. So the McKinley site is one of those sites that they'll be taking a look at.

Also, other developers know that this land is now – the building is raised and (the site is) available, so I think a housing option would be a good choice. We've gotten good input from the public that they want affordable, quality housing. So McKinley School, I think, would be a great opportunity, and we really appreciate that grant that we applied for with the PAAR organization for the Counselors of Real Estate (CRE), and they had some very good recommendations that they put forth.

The Joint Commission on Racial Justice and Equity presented its report to the city council at the last meeting, and the bottom line is that “the gap is large.” Racial inequities are glaring in the areas of life expectancy, income, child development, education, technology access, the justice system … the list goes on and on. How can the Peoria community start to approach and address these inequities?

Mayor Ali: What we're doing – and again, that commission, which was formed a little bit over a year and a half ago, has been working to get our numbers, our data. We've heard from organizations like 24/7 Wall Street that say this is one of the worst places to live for African Americans. It’s always somebody else's data, and we don't always know the sources of that data. We wanted to find and organize our own data.

That's what happened over this past year, is that those committees – the steering committee, as well as those eight focus groups – they collected their own data, our data, so we would have a clearer picture of what Peoria truly looks like, Peoria City and Peoria County, in terms of the disparities based upon race. Now we know. This is our baseline data; we really can't begin to solve the problem until we clearly understand what it looks like.

Now we understand, and some people don't like it. They say, “why are you airing your dirty laundry?” right? We need to be truthful. We need to identify what the problem is, and then we put together a plan to solve the problem and begin to close those disparities in each of those key areas.

The disparity numbers that the report showed, were they more alarming than you even anticipated?

Mayor Ali: Not so much that I anticipated; I think they were more of a shock to people who haven't been as close to the data as I have. But I understand the data. We modeled this after what happened in King County, Wash. They did a similar approach in terms of identifying the disparities, then putting together strategies, goals and objectives for closing those disparities, and over a 10-year time period their results were significant.

It's going to take time. These disparities won't be closed overnight, in terms of the home ownership between Black people and white people, significant gaps, and as you indicated, the life expectancy: sometimes 10 to 12 years (difference), significant gaps. These are not problems that we will solve overnight, but we will begin to chip away at them and begin to remove barriers and provide opportunities for education, opportunities for work skill development and jobs, that will lead to the reduction of poverty and begin to address some of those other issues.

There's been a lot of discussion in recent years about Peoria’s need for talent attraction to rebuild the population, and at the last council meeting, the Gilmore Foundation and former Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman pushed a strategy for executive level recruitment. How do you think this approach can benefit Peoria?

Mayor Ali: Of course, talent acquisition is a big deal now – and even post-COVID it’s even more of a big deal; it's very difficult to find and attract talent. Being a smaller central Illinois city, sometimes it's difficult to get people from a larger metropolitan area – like Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis areas – to move to Peoria, to think about that cultural shift. But Peoria has a lot to offer, and we have to really show people what the Greater Peoria area has to offer.

So this group got together – I was part of those initial meetings – and we identified talent acquisition as one of the major problems for industries in our area, and put together a plan in less than six months; it's been a very aggressive strategy. It's called “(Choose) Greater Peoria,” selling Greater Peoria and the benefits of not just the city but the greater Peoria area overall, and we have a lot to offer.

Senior talent – those that make, the salary range was somewhere about $117,000 and higher – is an area where there's a big void, also a great opportunity. So that's where it starts; certainly it won't end there. We certainly still have skill gaps in middle management positions that are professional positions; many often require college degrees are certain skill level, but they may not pay $117,000. So this is the start; this is what the CEOs said that they need and they're lacking. This is where we're going to begin the journey, and I'm very supportive of it.

New Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias is committing more than $2 million to create and fund a Greater Peoria Auto Crimes Task Force. How big of a problem has carjacking and vehicle thefts become, and how will this task force address the problem?

Mayor Ali: Auto crime has been a growing problem, and I'll tell you, unfortunately it’s been a lot of young people, children that have been involved in many of the auto crimes. Not just here locally, but on a national level; we've seen 10- and 11-year-olds being involved in car thefts. So it is a huge problem, and that's why the new Secretary of State is putting forth this opportunity.

It's a huge problem and we need resources to address it. License plate readers (Flock Safety security cameras) are helpful; more of them – not just in the city but also on the highways, those expressways right outside of the city – are good strategies. Everything costs money, and so you need resources in terms of staffing, technology and tools to begin to really get a grip on this problem and begin to reduce it. So I'm excited about the new task force, the resources that will be made available to address auto crimes in Peoria.

We spoke last month about the proposed carbon capture pipeline that would potentially run through Peoria’s South Side, and since then there's been more attention to this proposal. Have you formed more of an opinion on this project?

Mayor Ali: I have been more educated on this. I came to know that the federal government is providing incentives for reducing the carbon emissions. There is millions and millions of dollars that's being provided to these companies that are emitting the carbons in the air, for them to capture the carbon – in some way, whether it's through these pipes or there's a couple other ways; I guess you can sequester it in trucks and railroad cars and other ways – to capture the carbon and place it elsewhere.

So there are millions of dollars in incentives for these companies, and talking with the BioUrja company, I think their incentive is about $34 million a year for 12 years to capture that carbon and bring it down to zero emissions. So the federal government is helping our environment to be safe by providing these incentives.

I don't support it (a pipeline) going through a highly populated area. But I think what people don't understand is what's being proposed is not really “the South Side” per se. The pipeline would go from the BioUrja plant down by the river, and then on the opposite side of the street – I think it's Washington Street there – but near the river, and then on around where the entry into Peoria is near Bartonville. So it is away from housing; it's not what people thought, through a highly populated South Side community.

So I think we just need to become more educated before we form our opinions, that this is designed to create a more safe environment with less carbon emissions into our environment.

At a special council meeting last month, the city adopted some new regulations related to cannabis businesses, notably still prohibiting on-site consumption. Why were these changes needed, and why are city leaders still against on-site use?

Mayor Ali: The majority of the council is concerned about having too many cannabis dispensaries or cannabis businesses within the city of Peoria; I would say as a conservative approach. Although we like the revenues, there's some concern that we may be encouraging use of cannabis more than we should. So, there's been a cap – or it will be voted on; it's been recommended at this point that an ordinance be put together for a cap – of six (dispensary licenses).

We currently have three that are kind of in the hopper right now. They haven't been fully approved; we don't know if they'll actually go through the full process, so there still may be more opportunity for others to get in on this. But again, I think it's a conservative approach. The council is certainly not there with on-site consumption. I think that's a reach. I'm not saying that the council will never get there, but at this point the majority of the council was not there with on-site consumption.

Even though the survey results showed public favor?

Mayor Ali: Exactly. That's true.

Following Tuesday's election results, the City Council will look different, but only a little. Bernice Gordon-Young got the most votes of any of the candidates, and she'll join Mike Vespa and incumbents John Kelly, Zach Oyler and Kiran Velpula in the at-large seats. What are your thoughts on this council makeup going forward?

Mayor Ali: I'm excited, excited for the new council members that will join: Dr. Bernice Gordon-Young and Mr. Mike Vespa. I think they're both very talented, very intelligent, young contributors to our community. So I'm excited about what they have to bring to the table and around the horseshoe.

Northwoods Mall management says it's leased out at 99%, but the Round1 Entertainment Center just announced it will close next month. How would you characterize Peoria’s overall retail health, and what can be done to improve it?

Mayor Ali: I think we're experiencing what many retail establishments are experiencing throughout the country: The physical facility of, whether it's entertainment or whether it's large shopping retail establishments, like a Macy's, which we saw leave – it’s the cost, I think, to maintain, and the fact that people are doing so much more virtually than they used to. They're shopping online, they're entertaining themselves in different ways, sometimes virtually and online. So we're seeing less physical attendance at some of these big facilities that are very costly, in terms of utilities and other expenses to maintain.

So I think that we just have to look at other approaches to retail; we have to be very creative. While one business closes, two more businesses are opening – and that's what we see, and that's the message I think that we really have to get out. While we see one maybe larger establishment close, we may see two or three smaller establishments to open up, and so we need to get the word out about what's happening with new businesses coming and opening in Peoria.

We know the city has approved a $20 million capital improvement plan for the Civic Center, and some of the venues purchases have already been authorized. But what most people want to know about is related to getting a new ice plant and keeping the Rivermen hockey team as a tenant. Do you have any updated information on where that stands?

Mayor Ali: I'm very optimistic that there's going to be an agreement reached between the Civic Center Authority and the Rivermen, so I think it's just a matter of time that we'll all get an update on where things are with that. But there's that expectation that the ice plant was part of that $20 million operation; the ice plant could cost upwards of $4 million, but it should last at least 20 years. So one thing that we do also expect with that lease agreement is that it’s not a one-year deal and the Rivermen walk away after one year. We want them here, and we want them to stay for a long period of time.

What's the latest news on the passenger rail project? Any updates you can give us for that?

Mayor Ali: Well, what we did get was a timeline. We put in two major grants for the passenger rail opportunity. One was what they call a CRISI (Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement) safety grant, and we put that in with collaboration of our partners along the corridor. We will find out about that in September. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has released a calendar of when they're going to announce these awards, so we'll find out about that in September.

Then the most important is the FRA Corridor Identification Program, which once you get into that Corridor Identification Program, you'll get the technical support and the financial support to get your corridor up and running. So that's why I say that is the most important one. We will learn about that award in October of this year. So a few months away, we should know about our status.

In the meantime, we continue to work. We continue to identify where we think the best places are for stations. There's a study being done in the Morris/LaSalle-Peru area on where the stations (will be), and there's funding that has been provided for those studies, but they're looking at where the best locations are for those passenger rail stations along the corridor.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.