Illinois Valley mayors speak on the state of their city at Utica event

Mayors share vision for the future

(From left) La Salle mayor Jeff Grove, Ottawa mayor Dan Aussem, Princeton mayor Joel Quiram, Illinois Valley Chamber of Commerce executive director Bill Zens, Utica mayor Dave Stewart, Oglesby mayor Dominic Rivara and Peru mayor Ken Kolowski speak during the State of the Cities Luncheon hosted by the Illinois Valley Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, March 16, 2023 at Grand Bear Lodge in Utica.

We need to work together, because if we don’t, we’re not going to survive.

—  Oglesby Mayor Dom Rivara

The mayors of Oglesby, La Salle, Utica, Princeton, Ottawa and Peru shared accomplishments, issues and future goals at the Illinois Valley Chamber of Commerce State of the Cities event Thursday afternoon.

There were 210 people in attendance for the luncheon.

Here are the questions asked by attendees and by IVAC Executive Director Bill Zens, including how each mayor in the NewsTribune area responded.

What are your city’s three biggest accomplishments?

Oglesby Mayor Dom Rivara said his city’s biggest accomplishments were installing iFiber, the new electric substation, and improving and upgrading the electric and water system.

Rivara said valves are in place now so when there’s a leak, it doesn’t have to shut down the entire city. He also said the city has operated in the black for four years in a row, all of which keep the city operating and improve functionality, he said.

Peru Mayor Ken Kolowski said bringing the GAF manufacturing site to Peru was a great accomplishment because it will bring 100 new jobs to the area. He also cited new housing developments, such as the Pohar’s Crossing subdivision and 3 Diamond Development senior center.

The third accomplishment he listed was the investment in city parks: the improvements to Veterans’ Park baseball stadium, the addition of new tennis and pickleball courts, and new infields on Little League diamonds.

La Salle Mayor Jeff Grove said being fiscally responsible while maintaining sewer and other infrastructure within the city budget was one accomplishment. Another, he said, is the city’s work on its parks and the Celebration of Lights. He hopes to see a new entrance to Rotary Park, to which residents can walk or ride their bike for easier access.

Grove also said the fact no one was killed in the Carus fire is an accomplishment on behalf of the city and its fire department. He said the city is doing the best it can to continue communicating with residents and Carus in the aftermath.

Utica Village President David Stewart said the village established a new village hall in the former grade school that also hosts community events and serves as Heritage Corridor’s visitors center; received a grant to erect small retail business incubators in the vacant lots on the north edge of Mill Street; and also nabbed a grant to rewater the Illinois and Michigan Canal through the village through a pilot project, with berms being used initially to maintain the flow of water.

Princeton Mayor Joel Quiram said the city has gone from $42 million in debt with no cash on-hand eight years ago to $19 million in debt with cash reserves of about $14 million. He also said the city has improved the aesthetics of the downtown business district with the LoveJoy Walkway and attracted an Ollie’s Bargain Barn warehouse.

What are some missed opportunities or potential issues for your city?

Rivara said the closure of St. Margaret’s Hospital in Peru is an “embarrassment and hurts our reputation.” He said the area can’t grow without proper health care. Rivara also said continuing to install iFiber and improving electric and water systems are future projects to continue.

Kolowski said the Peru Mall is a main issue for the city. He said it’s difficult dealing with a private entity and working toward a solution.

“It’s prime real estate that’s definitely a missed opportunity for the city of Peru,” Kolowski said.

Grove said acquiring and maintaining talented city workers in different departments, such as fire, police and public works, has been a challenge. He also said the lead lines project, where the city must replace all lead lines by 2024, is a significant challenge the city is ready to meet.

The aftermath of the Carus fire is another challenge, Grove said. He said the city is working on getting answers and being as transparent as possible.

Stewart said he sees an opportunity for the village to grow north on Route 178 by Interstate 80 and Route 6.

How can the cities work together to drive development throughout the region?

Rivara said he’d like to see the city mayors meet periodically and think past city lines.

“We need to work together because if we don’t, we’re not going to survive,” Rivara said.

Quiram suggested communities from Princeton to Morris should meet, possibly quarterly, to share ideas and talk about economic development. He said the region is poised for growth.

Kolowski said the cities can work together with joint projects, such as the Wenzel Road project with La Salle. He also said the cities work together by coordinating events so they don’t overlap with other cities’

Grove said the Illinois Valley Dispatch is one way the cities work together, and he suggested collaboration between mayors to do as much as possible to find a solution to the closing of St. Margaret’s Hospital.

Stewart said the village works with other communities on certain projects, noting that he spoke quite a bit with Ottawa officials about rewatering the canal.

Each mayor spoke favorably of the services the North Central Illinois Council of Governments provides in helping to acquire grants.

Where would you like to see your community in the next five to 10 years?

Rivara said he’d like to see more change and more access to waterways, roadways and improved infrastructure. He said the city needs electric charging stations as electric cars increase in popularity, and said all mayors need to work together to market the area as a group.

Kolowski said he wants to see Peru continue to grow its retail and grow industrially. Grove said he’d like to get the city debt-free, have a full downtown business scene and see completion of the brewpub and Kaskaskia projects.

What are the biggest hurdles the region faces and how can it overcome them?

Rivara said a big hurdle the region has is competing with larger companies and cities that offer higher wages for employees. He said he works to overcome this by offering competitive benefits package and a pension.

Kolowski and Grove said the biggest hurdle is inflation. Kolowski said city projects cost more now than in the past, and Grove said inflation is holding some people back from taking on new development projects.

Quiram said the negative impact of inflation is being felt by small businesses and encouraged everyone to support their local businesses.

How do you plan to solve brain drain when kids from the area graduate college and don’t return home to live and work?

Rivara said the area needs to work to have jobs for people to support their family. Kolowski said the city of Peru developed a scholarship with IVCC to help keep young graduates in the area.

Grove said quality of life needs to be emphasized, including location, schools, parks, local businesses, libraries and having Starved Rock nearby.

“You look at different things in a community that makes it unique,” Grove said.