Kankakee mayor on the issues
As mayor of Kankakee, Chasity Wells-Armstrong works with and for 26,600 residents.
Think recently talked with the mayor about the job she now has held for a year and a half. Wells-Armstrong provided answers to questions asked by Phil Angelo. Both are edited for length and continuity.
What inspired you to get into politics?
I wanted to make a difference. During my undergraduate program at Governors State, I was selected to serve as a national policy fellow and worked in [Washington] D.C. for nine weeks. It was a lightbulb moment. I saw policy in action and came to a better understanding for the impact policy has on the lives of people.
Has anything surprised you about your time in office?
People oftentimes have unrealistic expectations regarding the role of a mayor. Additionally, the city has been understaffed in key areas, which has impeded economic growth and opportunity.
Also, I am surprised how negative some people are about the community in which they choose to live.
You have put a lot of emphasis on riverfront development. How is that coming? What is your view of what the riverfront should look like?
We are working on the river daily, although that is one of the things people might not be seeing about city government.
We have a master plan, which has been adopted by City Council, available on our city website. The development will invite residents and visitors to partake in a variety of social and recreational activities: bike trails, walking paths, kayaking, canoeing, fishing, dining, lodging, condos, shops, whitewater, zip-lining, rescue training for our first responders and quiet spaces for reflection.
When it comes to this project, steady wins the race. We continue to work at identifying and securing grants.
We have already secured an ITEP (Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program) grant that would link Kennedy to Court to Station for walking and biking, and will submit for an OSLAD (Open Space Land Acquisition and Development). We had a property donation.
We are interviewing leaders for the implementation team. We are establishing a Riverfront TIF (tax increment financing) and we are studying other developments. Elgin and Louisville are examples.
You talked in your State of the City address about how young people feel there is not enough opportunity for them. How does the city create more opportunity?
The Kankakee school district is doing a great job, but we need even more collaboration.
I sent out a letter and worked with the community to raise funds and gave away four $2,000 scholarships. Kankakee also has partnered with Cities United to address issues that lead to gun violence and to provide opportunities and support for at-risk youth.
As a result, the city has selected a fellow (a Kankakee High graduate) who is helping to develop a citywide public safety plan that embraces the voice of youth. His position will make sure that teens have a voice in future programs aimed at combating violence. It will be more than adults lecturing to youth. The youth will have a say.
Our fellow is meeting youth from across the country and is learning about effective strategies to help youth.
Kankakee will be creating a mentoring program to provide training, mentors and exposure for careers in city government. Additionally, Kankakee will explore the creation of a youth council. We need more mentoring for teens. We need more resources for teens so we can get at the issues that lead them to gun violence.
Kankakee gets a bad rap from crime, but actually things are getting safer. How do you get that message across?
Every city has challenges, and we are the county seat. I get that.
It would help for the media to balance reporting and not only address challenges, but also, highlight our victories.
The city needs a communications/PR professional to advance the message and vision of the work being done particularly as we seek to grow, recruit and retain skilled employees and invest in development.
Sometimes, people who live outside the city unfairly attack the city. Kankakee needs to designate more resources to get its message out through public relations. We put out press releases, but that is not enough. When Kankakee citizens see unfair criticism, they need to counter it. Put the message out about the positive things we are doing.
I believe that everyone in the community has a role to play regarding the image. Be someone who represents Kankakee in a positive manner. Residents can counter the negative and sometimes false information by sharing facts and positive news about the many good things that are happening.
There remain many boarded-up homes in Kankakee. Can anything be done there?
The city is extremely understaffed; particularly in key positions as we lack a Planning & Zoning director and an Economic Development director. When you don’t have those positions, you can’t make progress in terms of the problem of land use.
These are key positions to address the use of land, how it can be repurposed, and identifying programs to address vacancies. Ideally, we don’t want to tear down homes and leave vacancies. We want to replace that home with something useful, constructive and hopefully, tax-generating for Kankakee.
What should the city look for in a new police chief?
I would like an educated professional who is committed to lifelong learning and best practices in the field of law enforcement. The police must stop crime and lock people up, but they must also have compassion.
I would like someone who is committed to the community and who will integrate into the community. The chief must understand and must make his department understand the concerns of minorities.
I would like a chief who understands my vision in moving Kankakee forward, raising the standard of professional conduct, committed to a trained force, and who will work with community leaders to address systemic issues that impact community and police relationships.
I would like to see a strong communicator who can build and strengthen internal and external relationships. Honesty and integrity are vital and we need a strategy for addressing the problems of drugs and guns.
The city is taking a poll on improving Schuyler Avenue. What would you like to see in downtown Kankakee?
I want people to realize the assets downtown Kankakee has.
I would like to see continuity in our downtown area, specifically on Schuyler Avenue between the two blocks north and two blocks south of Court Street. Recently, the city became part of the Bike 609 rideshare project.
Beautification and public art are a focus as well as starting plans to improve the River Valley Metro Transfer Station.
The new Kankakee logo features a bridge. Is there a conscious symbolism to that?
It was my idea to rebrand. The former logo was outdated. I worked closely with Alderwoman Stacy Gall who is one of our most creative residents. Several other council members gave input as well. The bridge is symbolic because our city is known for the river and rail.
You are going to see this brand rolled out on city logos and murals.
Who is responsible for the new City of Kankakee website?
I drove this project because our city was reflected poorly in digital space. The previous website was unappealing, did not highlight our community, and offered incorrect information. It did not make government accessible. Of the 11 officials listed that on the site who represented Kankakee residents, seven of them were incorrect and one was deceased.
Our current website is evolving. It is vibrant with photos of our residents and community. It is interactive — take the Schuyler Streetscape survey! The website expands access, as it can be translated to 80-plus languages. Council meetings are recorded and stored on the site.
Our community members can share their events to market their causes and to encourage participation. It demonstrates the city is ready to do business in a global economy. It better reflects our vision and message to move Kankakee forward.
How can the Mayor’s office and the City Council be more in harmony? What needs to be done?
We can always work to better communication, but there is a picture painted of me that I am inaccessible and that is not true. I send an update to City Council every week and I tell them that if they have questions, they should not hesitate to contact me.
They all have my cell number. There needs to be open communication, but it is more than just one-way — out from this office.
What is your feeling about the level of cooperation among the city and other governments — the school district, the park district and other municipalities?
I work well with the surrounding communities and seek regional collaboration. I am the new kid on the block so the Bradley mayor likes to give me a hard time, but I can hold my own and I give it back to him. LOL (Laugh Out Loud).
The mayors who serve on the KRMA board work well together. Kankakee is partnering with the Kankakee School District to secure a grant. And I am proud of the relationship the city and Kankakee Valley Park District have re-established in working together to develop the river.
I believe the city has great leadership in our schools, KVPD, and state’s attorney. We have ways to help one another. And yes, we can always be better, but we are on a good path.
Was the photo of your mayor’s new car an unfair criticism?
Here is all I am going to say on that issue: The ‘new’ car is a 2008 Tahoe, a 10-year-old car, that had been driven by the former Fire Chief Ron Young. Mayor Nina Epstein had been driving a 2012 Chevy Impala. I swapped two old cars because I wanted a bigger car to drive longer distances to Springfield, if necessary.
One night the Tahoe didn’t start and I had to call the fire department to come and get me at a meeting. We have a very old fleet of cars.
What is the most enjoyable part of being mayor?
I love going back to schools. I read to classes at Twain. I went to Steuben. I enjoy the diversity of my job, doing an interview, cutting a ribbon meeting with business officials. It is a great opportunity to learn and grow.
What do people not know about you, that they ought to know?
People typecast me as a liberal Democrat, but I am mindful of the budget. We have had two balanced budgets. When we lost Ultra Foods, I insisted on going back and amending the budget.
People need to know that there is no one more focused on appropriately managing the city’s resources including finances, human capital, and assets more than me. I seek best practices in governance and am not afraid to explore new strategies and approaches that better serve our community. And I fight for this city and its people.