Ardis: State of the City is proud, but much work lies ahead

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As it continues to bask in the glory of being named an All America City for the fourth time, Peoria will continue to see growth and a revitalized downtown -- with unprecedented help from City Hall -- in 2014, Mayor Jim Ardis said in his annual State of the City address delivered Tuesday.

Ardis told nearly 600 people at the event at the Peoria Civic Center, sponsored by the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, that such growth in the Warehouse District and other parts of the city are vital to Peoria's future.

He announced formation of a new Downtown Development Corporation to help streamline development downtown and in the Warehouse District.

"The CEO Council and the City of Peoria have been working on this concept since the middle of 2013. Fundraising is underway and the board is beginning to take shape. There is nothing more important to the economic future of this region than the vibrancy of Peoria's downtown and I expect great things from this organization," Ardis said.

He further said City Hall is embarking on a campaign to remake its image from difficult to work with to helping find and facilitate development projects. "The message is that when it comes to helping grow business, our first words won't be "No, you can't do it". Don't mistake that for everything you ask for will be yes. But we're working towards an attitude that we want to help you accomplish your goals. Let's see what we can do to help you get there. Let's work together to make this project happen to benefit your project, the existing business and residents and the area and the city as a whole. I believe this simple reminder to look for positive solutions will enhance the development process going forward," he said.

Ardis reminded his audience of the positive developments enjoyed in 2013, including the completion of renovation work and reopening of the Hotel Pere Marquette and near-completion of the adjoining Marriott Courtyard. He spoke about the plans of Running Central to move from Peoria Heights into the downtown Warehouse District with what will be a unique retail experience. He discussed plans for the Louisville Sluggers Sports Complex near the Shoppes at Grand Prairie, which has been a project not without controversy.

Redevelopment has started in the Warehouse District, with new roads and sidewalks and the first new restaurant, Sugar. And redevelopment could continue on another important building in Peoria's past, the Madison Theatre.

Ardis spent much of his speech discussing one of his favorite topics, education. He reported learning at a recent U.S. Conference of Mayors that Peoria is hardly alone among mid-sized urban areas in struggling with quality primary and secondary education for its residents. He said it will take a community-wide effort to end that struggle and he challenged audience members to ask themselves how they can help.

"Our community cannot move forward without well-educated, skilled workers for both white collar and blue collar jobs. We have to do more and we have to do it better. In my opinion a community focus on education issues and solutions should be priority number one for everyone. Ask yourself what you, your company, your church or other organizations are doing to move the ball forward?

"Even though the City Council doesn't have any governing control over our schools, I am committed to keeping a focus on educational performance in Peoria. We have to do better. The quality of our education system is the number one factor influencing our ability to grow Peoria and we're not going in the right direction," Ardis said.

He did, however, recognize one person for his efforts to improve education in the community. Ardis presented the 2013 Mayor's Outstanding Community Service Award to Dr. Bill Collier. The former superintendent of Dunlap schools, Collier has served as the mayor's unpaid education liaison the past eight-plus years.

He also gave special recognition to the city's Sustainability Commission, chaired by Dr. Amir Al-Khafaji, which focuses on economic development, social equity and sustainability initiatives for the future. The list of the commission's 2013 accomplishments is long and includes compiling the information the City Council needed when making its decision on the water company buyout option, hosting the third annual executive summit that was attended by 42 of the most prominent national leaders in infrastructure, and the fourth annual Christmas toy giveaway in conjuncture with the Peoria Housing Authority.

One of its most important accomplishments was ensuring that a financially strapped Bradley University students was not only able to obtain his degree but helped the city gain a civil engineer.

Ardis spoke about the City Council's decision to adopt its first-ever, two-year operating budget. He said the continued slow economic recovery and stale property valuations in the city "inspired us to plan for more than just the year ahead."

He spoke of improvements in and continued investment in public safety and said the city's commitment would not wane.

Finally, Ardis praised the efforts of local government units in the region for their response to the Nov. 17 tornadoes that heavily damaged parts of Washington, East Peoria, Pekin and Morton. He especially noted Washington Mayor Gary Manier's "true courageous mayoral leadership" in the aftermath of the storm.

"This is the finest example of mayoral leadership and courage I have personally had the privilege of witnessing," he said before noting Manier was not at the Peoria event because he was in Washington, D.C. to attend President Obama's State of the Union address as the guest of U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk.

"There are always so many topics to mention and not enough time to say it all. As I bring this year's address to a close, there are a few things that I want to reinforce. First of all, we are an outstanding community. We're an All-American City. We should all be proud. Very proud," he said.