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Despite Challenges, Ardis Sees Good Days Ahead For Peoria Under New Leadership

Tim Shelley / Peoria Public Radio
Outgoing Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis in his office, decorated with mementoes gathered over his 20+ years of public service, on the second floor of City Hall.

For the first time in 22 years, Jim Ardis won't have a seat saved for him around the horseshoe in the Peoria City Council chambers.

Ardis was first elected to the city council in 1999. He became mayor in 2005 after defeating the late Dave Ransburg.

But after a historic four consecutive terms sitting at the head of Peoria city government, Ardis said he and his wife decided it was time to call it quits.

"We sat down to have our every-four-year talk, and I still had the desire and the passion. Mimi was very supportive, as she always has been. And I think the difference this time is, she said, 'Well, just keep in mind, we're both going to be 62 this spring. We have a couple of grandchildren. One of our kids is getting married this summer. And you know, in four more years we'll be 66.'

"And there was something about that, that all of those things put together that have never really presented themselves before when we were contemplating another run," Ardis said.

Ardis was just 39 years old when he first took a spot on the council. He's now one of the senior members.

"I'm the old guy that, retrospectively, that I was looking at when I first got on the council. I'm one of those guys now. The younger people are looking at (me) and saying it's time for new leadership. It's time for younger leadership. And everything kind of comes around. I look forward to that," he said.

Ardis said his decision to take a new job as strategic philanthropy officer with the OSF HealthCare Foundation last year didn't factor into it.

Credit Tim Shelley/WCBU
Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis announces he will not seek a fifth term in office during a press conference at Peoria City Hall, Oct. 14, 2020.

"I didn't go up there with any intentions of leaving the mayor's office anytime soon. But as it's turned out, I mean, I think a lot of this is just kind of how God's plans work," he said.

Peoria has certainly been through more than its fair share of challenges during Ardis' tenure. Caterpillar's 2017 announcement that it was scrapping plans for a new world headquarters in downtown Peoria in favor of a new base in the Chicago area was described by Ardis as a "gut punch" at the time.

With more than 12,000 employees in the greater Peoria area, Caterpillar called Peoria home for more than a century. The earthmoving giant still remains the region's single largest employer, though the area's hospital systems combined have overtaken Big Yellow in total headcount in recent years.

"We have the largest number of Caterpillar employees in the Peoria area than anywhere else in the world that Caterpillar has a footprint," Ardis said. "And people still wring their hands, because, you know, they decided to take the leadership up to Deerfield. Well, you know, we wish they were still here. I think a lot of people probably still consider Peoria the home of Caterpillar Tractor. But there's still a lot of really strong local businesses that are doing very well."

Ardis maintains a positive outlook. He sees this as just the latest transition in the history of a city that's transformed itself several times: from an agricultural center, to the whiskey-producing capital of the world, to a manufacturing giant.

The next leap, Ardis said, is medicine.

"You know, 50 years ago, literally, when Mayor Carver and other community leaders worked really hard to get the University of Illinois College of Medicine here, I don't think anybody had any idea that 50 years later, the dividends that would pay off," Ardis said. "Because it was part of that strong foundation, and continued to grow in our community. And it's helped UnityPoint Methodist, it's helped OSF, and obviously, the rest of our community. So we have transformed ourselves again."

Ardis said Peoria has built up a strong base for medical research and development, between the hospitals, the Peoria Ag Lab, UICOMP, and the Jump Trading Simulation & Education Center. He sees OSF's upcoming Comprehensive Cancer Center on the East Bluff as the crown jewel in that transformation.

Credit Courtesy OSF HealthCare
Rendering of the OSF Comprehensive Cancer Center on Armstrong Ave. OSF HealthCare aims to open the center by early 2023.

"The key component of our new Cancer Center is going to be a proton beam. There's only 30, 31 of them in the whole country. So Peoria's will be the newest, it'll be the state-of-the-art with all the bells and whistles. People really will come from all over, not just from central Illinois," he said. "We see people from all over the Midwest coming to central Illinois, not just because it's going to be the newest and the quickest and the most accurate, but just because of the ease of coming into central Illinois, versus coming into Chicago or Indianapolis or one of the other big cities."

That's not to say Peoria doesn't have its challenges. The months-long council wrangling over cuts to the police and fire departments to balance a 2020 budget blasted by revenues depleted by the COVID-19 pandemic put the city's short and long-term finances under a microscope.

The number one problem there, Ardis said, isn't something that can be fixed at the local level, but something state lawmakers need to come to terms with: how to address the state's ballooning public pension liability.

Ardis said it's a matter of when, not if, financial disaster strikes local and state governments if the status quo remains untouched.

"It's not the 'sky is falling' type of scenario, it's going to happen unless it's addressed before that crash happens. There's going to be a lot of people out there that are going to be severely impacted when literally their whole retirement is gone," he said. "Because there was never a willingness to sit down and help us negotiate, basically a restructuring, a path to restructure that debt."

Illinois' unfunded pension liability currently sits at around $141 billion. The City of Peoria's unfunded local police and firefighter pension obligations currently stands at $340 million.

Paying down that liability accounted for 11% of the city's operating budget in 2008. Today, those payments account for 20% -- and City Manager Patrick Urich said in February the pensions' slice of the overall revenue pie is only going to grow larger, to the detriment of other city services, without some kind of change, like extending the amoritization calendar out to a rolling, 30-year period beyond the current 2040 state deadline for the funds to meet a 90% funding threshold.

Ardis acknowledged the Illinois Supreme Court has made clear that current pension benefits cannot be unilaterally diminshed or reduced in any way. So instead, he believes state lawmakers need to adjust how the debt is structured, and how pension benefits can be paid out.

"They're just not sustainable. They didn't allow us an income method to pay for that. They just said, you pay it, and we can't do it. We just simply can't do it. And it's not unique to Peoria. There's not a city in the state that can afford this. So we have to continue to put pressure on Springfield to help affect that change," Ardis said.

"There's nothing we can do. We've turned up the volume a lot in the last 10 years. We made a really small gain with the consolidation of the police and fire pension groups, but that's just really that's just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what needs to be done in this, in the restructuring of the finances."

Peoria still isn't sure who the next mayor will be. As of Thursday, Jim Montelongo sits just 73 votes ahead of Rita Ali, with more than 600 absentee ballots still potentially returning between now and April 20.

But regardless of who ends up winning, Ardis said the new mayor and council will need to figure out what priorities it wants to fund with the tiny amount of discretionary money available.

"I don't want to be brash, and say it's going to be a rude awakening, but there is going to be kind of a 'come to Jesus' time when, you know, people that, you know, maybe don't have a full grasp on the dynamics of a budget, and really what their options are -- in our case, very few -- how you're going to come to grips with that. And so I think we have to make those decisions here locally, prioritize," he said.

Ardis hopes the council acts conservatively with federal COVID relief funds to pay down debt, rather than embark on a new hiring blitz.

"The main reason I think we need to do that is because there could be another round of COVID. And we could need that money," the mayor said. "And it's not like it's going to be so much money for a rainy day that it's going to save us. But I hope that we just don't take for granted that we're all the way out of the weeds."

Credit Supplied photos

The next mayor will make city history. Montelongo would be the first Latinx mayor if he wins; Ali would be the first Black woman to hold the office. Ardis said that's something Peoria should take pride in.

"You know, when it comes to who the final two candidates were, they're definitely both products of a community that has become much more diverse," Ardis said.

Peoria is wrangling with increasing equity in this diversifying city, particularly for Black citizens who comprise a quarter of the population. The city's problems with racial disparities in employment, incarceration rates, and other areas have been highlighted nationally in recent years.

"I mean, as far back as I can remember, which would be the early '60s, you know, Peoria's had issues, racial challenges, in as almost every other community in the country," Ardis said.

He thinks the Joint Commission on Racial Justice formed last year with Peoria County in the wake of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis is a positive step forward. The new joint committee is in the process of forming numerous subcommittees among various community stakeholders focused around having real conversations around racial disparities, and finding roads for progress.

"I think it's just kind of the newest generation, if you will, of those types of community committees that will hopefully address and give people in the community a feeling to take ownership on how those different areas are addressed," Ardis said.

He also hopes his successor maintains support for Peoria Promise. Since 2008, the privately-funded program founded by Ardis has provided more than $5.8 million to more than 3,900 Peoria students to pursue higher education.

"The reason it's been as successful as it has is because people. People really understand the significance of educational opportunities for everyone," he said, adding conversations about college and higher education need to start early, perhaps even as early as preschool.

"These young kids across the city are very smart. I mean, they're not not going to college because they don't have the mind to do it. They don't have the opportunity to do it," he said.

Providing that opportunity, particularly for those prospective first-generation college students who work hard to achieve academically, is pivotal, Ardis said.

Credit Courtesy Peoria Promise
Ardis, far right, with the Peoria Promise co-chairs at its 2019 fundraiser, the last before the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Education really is the key to so many issues that we're facing across the country and across the world," Ardis said. "But, you know, here in our country if we went back to a place in time, where we funded education appropriately, evenly, and fairly, and provided these types of opportunities for all of our kids, we wouldn't have as many problems as we have with single parents, and in many cases, no-parent families, and you know, kids falling through the cracks and getting in trouble because they didn't have that opportunity."

Ardis said that's the philosophy driving Peoria Promise.

"You know, we can focus our money on education. Or we can focus our money on incarceration," he said. "And in one area, it's going to pay huge dividends to us. The kids are going to have a good education. They're going to be productive members of the community wherever they live, hopefully here. And if not, we can build more prisons and and do all those things to lock people up, and will literally be paying for those folks the rest of their lives and the rest of our lives. And it's not a smart equation. So I think that's been the dominant driver why Peoria Promise has been as successful as it has."

As he prepares to leave the mayor's office, Ardis said Peoria has "very good days" ahead, and he remains an optimist about the city's future, fiscal concerns aside. He also plans to stick around to witness those new days -- albeit as a private citizen.

"I've been born and raised in Peoria. I have no plans to leave. I love this community. I don't ever anticipate leaving this community," he said.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.