What inspired you to run for Peoria mayor?
When my family and I moved back to Peoria four years ago, we did so with the intention to move into the neighborhood where I grew up and join efforts to revitalize Peoria. However, the dysfunction within City Hall, regrettably, had not changed during our time away. The lack of follow-through by city staff and elected officials was just the tip of the iceberg. We have seen increases in fees and taxes. No action has been taken to inclusively work together to address and resolve our community’s problems. Opportunities for improvement continue to be lost. This lack of leadership frustrates and demoralizes residents and discourages investment and growth.
Despite over $1.3 billion in investments over the last 20 years, there is still a perception that Peoria is failing and not the place you want to raise your family. I want to change that perception. I have taken action and invested in my neighborhood to address these challenges and be part of the solution. At every turn, when I had to work with the city, the message given was that I did not fit the profile to be an entrepreneur—not good enough, not rich enough, not smart enough, not connected enough—and that my investment was unwanted. I am sure that I am not alone in this experience. Fortunately, God provided paths to success.
When the local grocery store closed down, I launched our family farm, Urban Acres. In the three years since, I have provided over 5,000 pounds of produce for our community by gardening vacant lots in my neighborhood. To build on that momentum, I converted a former doctor’s office into a business incubator space and transformed a parking lot into a thriving farmer’s market in the North Valley. Over the last two years, every Saturday from June through September, I provide opportunities for friends and neighbors to make their dreams a reality. I want to do the same for Peoria. We need to dream bigger, create an inclusive plan, and take the actions necessary to make those dreams come true.
What are your top three issues, and how do you plan to address these issues?
#1: Fiscal responsibility. The city cannot continue along the current path of spending and expect taxpayers and residents to feed the beast. Population decline and stagnant home prices have led to the need for higher taxes and fees. While some of our issues have been brought to our doorstep by state laws and mandates, that is no excuse for the mismanagement of taxpayer dollars given to private enterprises and defending frivolous lawsuits. As mayor, I will lead the Council to fund basic city services before spending money on pet projects. We must begin to examine every cent going out and become better stewards of the public dollar. We must live within our means and once we address our needs, we can begin to fund the wants and nice-to-haves.
#2: Delivery of public services. Our city’s police, fire and public works departments have been cut to balance the budget, resulting in longer fire response times, higher crime rates and crumbling infrastructure. Our current City Council has failed to gauge the expectation of citizens and deliver accordingly. As mayor, I will propose:
- Town hall meetings to better understand residents’ expectations and provide education on the real cost of public services;
- Public budget meetings and utilizing the collected input as the driver to making our city a better place to live, work and recreate; and
- Providing feedback to citizens regarding the actions the city has taken based on this public input.
#3: Citizen engagement and incremental development. Starting a business and addressing issues within our community are hard to accomplish if you do not have the right connections. Peoria has spent countless dollars incentivizing developers for projects which have been unable to capture positive forward momentum, to the detriment of our local businesses. Contacting city staff or council members frequently yields no response or evasive answers that do not address the questions being asked. This requires a culture change starting from the top. The mayor, leading by example, can be mirrored by fellow council members and ultimately set the expectation of excellent customer service for the city manager. It is then the city manager’s job to hold staff to the same level of service.
We must strive to engage and empower every citizen to do their part to make our city a better place to live. In my own experience, and in talking with others within our community, staff too often find reasons to say “No” and add unnecessary steps, making it difficult to do business in Peoria. We should find ways to say “YES!” When city employees and elected officials ignore calls for change and refuse to address change through public policy, the trust of our citizens is lost. City Hall should be committed to acknowledging requests within 48 hours and resolving issues in a timely manner.
We must also foster grassroots development, changing policy to empower local entrepreneurs to chase their dreams—and give them the ability to do so within the city. When people can find success in their own neighborhood, they can grow that dream to a larger platform and show off their Peoria pride.
What is your vision for Peoria’s future?
I have a vision that Peoria realizes its full potential—that we have a fully engaged populace who understand that they:
- are individually valued members of our community;
- can be part of developing an inclusive plan;
- will know where we are headed as we revitalize our city;
- are able to work together to solve our challenges;
- are able to take advantages of opportunities; and
- are able to achieve their dreams.
Over the next five years, nearly half a billion dollars is already committed to projects within the city. The McClugage Bridge expansion ($210M), redevelopment of Taft Homes ($45M), and addition of a cancer center by OSF HealthCare ($237M) could kickstart urban revitalization and citizen engagement. These projects alone could instigate the development of a bike route that surrounds our most treasured asset, the Illinois River, attracting visitors and residents alike. In addition, over $118M will be spent on green infrastructure addressing the Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) issues.
To maximize these investments, we must draw upon local businesses and residents to fill in the gaps between projects, creating a complete solution to development in our community. As these projects begin, we must encourage and inspire investment into the surrounding areas. The successful development of the heart of our city will not only benefit those in the immediate area; it will strengthen the tax base to help our community as a whole.
Why are you the best candidate to serve in this position?
My education and career have provided me with an in-depth understanding of the roles and responsibilities of government as well as a unique perspective on government and private-sector development. These experiences include a degree in political science from Bradley University, six years working for our region’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), and 16 years at Caterpillar Inc.
Working at the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, our region’s MPO, provided opportunities to gain knowledge of how policy is created and funded. I worked on the launch of PeoriaGIS.com, managing data collection for IDOT, and supported regional government with data and information to craft public policy. Employment at Caterpillar has enabled me to work with billion-dollar Caterpillar dealers, oversee multi-million-dollar accounts, and grow market share selling to federal agencies and governments around the world. These varied responsibilities have added to my knowledge and understanding of the requirements for compliance with government regulations. This understanding is essential to the effective and efficient running of Peoria in order to avoid unnecessary project delays and/or fines by federal and state agencies.
Finally, I bring my passion, vision and love for Peoria. As a first-generation American, I am living the American Dream. In order to achieve that dream, I have put in the hard work and dedication to setting goals, laying out plans, and then executing these plans to reach a destination. Having travelled extensively and lived in various places around the United States and the world, I can bring successful practices that I have seen firsthand and new ideas to Peoria as a mayoral candidate. We must return to being a city where gainful employment is accessible, residents are safe, the population is growing, and all Peorians have the opportunity to achieve their dreams.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Our current situation is not unlike the 1980s when Jim Maloof ran to become mayor of Peoria. At that time, he branded our council as the “do-nothing” city council, highlighting the vacant buildings and boarded-up businesses at the time. Over this past year, with the added challenges of COVID-19, it appears Peoria has gone back to its past instead of embracing its present and future. If you want to embrace the reality of Peoria today and become inclusively engaged in creating and carrying out our plan for renewal, then I am your candidate. I will be your leader, your cheerleader when needed, the voice of reason, and sometimes the bearer of bad news. I will be a mayor for all Peorians, regardless of your income or address. PM
I have some knowledge of a hoop house not being used in Peoria. I have heard that you are interested in it. I would like to know if you are still interested in it at resent and talk with you about it.
Martha Willi, currently working with W. Garrard at Friedship House children gardening project.
Cell phone 309-229-9160