André Bohannon was born in South Bend, Ind., where he taught high school English for a number of years before moving to Montgomery, Ala., in the late 60s to become principal of an all-black high school. In 1970 he moved to Peoria, where he worked for Frank Campbell at the Tri-County Urban League as director of education. Heavily involved in representing the minority community in integration programs, he then became deputy director for the Tri-County Urban League. In 1974, André was hired as human resources director for the City of Peoria, and in 1986 was promoted to assistant city manager. He left the City’s employ in 1991 to start his management consulting firm, Urban Diversified Services, which specializes in the areas of human service development, evaluation, programs, analysis and management training. He is sole proprietor and president of Urban Diversified Services. In 1992 André was elected Peoria City Councilman to the First District.
André is also a national certified trainer with the Edge Learning Institute – a management program used by many national companies including Caterpillar Inc. – which centers around a program called “Increasing Human Effectiveness.” A similar program, “Unlocking Your Potential,” focuses on youth training. Personal growth and development classes and programs of the Edge Learning Institute are presented locally through Universal Professional School, a school developed by André and partner David Duncan.
A good share of the development in Peoria over the last few years has occurred in the First District, which you represent on the Peoria City Council. In your mind, what have been the highlights? How do you see downtown development progressing?
I feel very fortunate to have joined the Council when I did, because a lot of the plans had already been laid. The time was right in the local economy; there was a great deal of pent-up demand for development after the slow years of the early 80s.
I’m extremely pleased with the development in terms of the private sector. The public sector can hopefully support and stimulate growth and development, but the real growth depends on the private sector. A number of private developers have stepped forward and taken the lead, in terms of our downtown. Our riverfront has certainly received a great deal of attention.
In addition to what goes on downtown and along the riverfront, I am also responsible for some of the more challenging neighborhood development efforts. We have the Spring Grove Project, which has been somewhat difficult; the whole Southtown development process has been a very long process, filled with some apprehension. When the Red Cross was looking to develop in Southtown, there were some concerns about whether volunteers would want to come to that part of town. In talking with Anne Fox, she is extremely delighted with the new location and there’s been no reservations at all.
In terms of residential development, apprehensions were there, and to some degree are still there. But in spite of that, I think we have about 30 lots in Spring Grove, with probably at least one-third of them committed. I’m extremely please, we have had basically one full construction and sale year. I’m anticipating that in 1996 we’ll achieve that number, if not exceed it. I would project that within the next two or three years, that whole area will have homes built or under construction. I’m extremely pleased that we are focusing on residential areas.
Not too far from Spring Grove, on the other side of MacArthur, is a project called the Fifth and King project, which appears to be moving quite successfully. We’re planning some infrastructure work, redesigning some of the streets to provide better access to the Valeska Hinton School.
There is some balance in the First District, not only in terms of the downtown, riverfront, and commercial segments, but also in residential areas. There are a number of developers who are really interested in trying to develop some affordable housing throughout the First District.
Spring Grove is a unique project in Peoria. Tell us more about this Southtown venture between the City and The Prudential Cullinan Properties Ltd.
I’m satisfied with the progress. The city basically provided the lots and infrastructure. The homes came in a little higher in price than I had hope, although some people see that as a good sign. I was anticipating houses in the $60,000-$70,000 range. As it’s turning our, they are in the $80,000-$90,000 range, and in some cases a little over $100,000 – but that’s where the interest of the buyers has been. I guess the downside is that the houses are not as affordable as some people were anticipating; the upside is there are some people willing to commit substantial dollars in an area where there were a lot of reservations about that kind of investment. Spring Grove is a good example of quality private developers joining with public dollars to develop an area that certainly needs development.
How is the commercial development of Southtown progressing?
Maloof Commercial Real Estate was approved by the Council as the designated developer for the commercial area of Southtown, along Jefferson Street. Initially it had identified at least two major companies – I think one was a Fortune 500 company – that had an interest in the area. I assume all of those things are still on track; nothing has come to my attention that indicates things are not moving ahead.
Also, James Polk, former city councilman, expressed an interest in development and was given a designated track of land for development. It is my hope that he too will be successful. As a black councilman, I am committed to improvements in the community as a whole – not only in the minority and disadvantaged community, which includes low-income white – but I certainly would like to increase minority business and development. That’s why I hope Mr. Polk will be successful in his endeavors; to my knowledge it would be the first minority development in that area, outside of churches.
Are you comfortable with the riverfront development plans?
I, like a lot of people, thought it was a bit ambitious at the start, but it appears that the plan does have some balance. There’s all kinds of community reaction. As a whole, I think most people in this community realize the value and importance of the riverfront. In fact I’m kind of surprised – here we are in the late 1990s just really now doing something in terms of a major effort.
The riverfront is important, since it is essentially the front door to the city when you cross the Murray Baker Bridge. Once that riverfront is developed – and I’m confident it will be developed – it’s going to be a real boost to Peoria’s economy and its appearance.
There are some challenges for both the public and the private sectors. I’m extremely pleased with the job Tom Tincher and Hedy Veach have done on the riverfront project, along with Jim Baldwin and Skip Snyder from the private sector. Some really positive things are going to happen, and by the year 2000 a lot of that is going to be in place
Are you disappointed the Par-A-Dice Riverboat Casino didn’t end up on the Peoria side of the river?
Yes I am. I’m certain that had the Par-A-Dice been able to stay on the Peoria side, a lot of what we are not going through in terms of the planning would have been forthcoming by now; we probably would have had a jump on that. But the horse is out of the barn, and so what we need to do now is move forward. I’m also pleased to see it on the other side of the river where there is a great deal of interest and development. I, for one, really feel the waters that separate East Peoria and Peoria aren’t nearly as great as the difference we sometimes make between the two of us. What’s good for Peoria is good for East Peoria, and vice versa. Peoria is still benefiting quite a bit from the boat.
The First District contains some of Peoria’s most prestigious and least prestigious real estate, from corporate headquarters to public housing projects. As councilman, how do you balance the interests of all residents within your district?
I do have one of the most challenging and interesting districts, and it’s one that I’m extremely proud to represent – representing both the “power base” in the community and those that are often identified as “the powerless.” I go from meeting with corporate leaders at 9:00 to meting with resident councils at 10:00, and to me there’s a common thread, regardless of status or position. I find that both groups have high aspirations and dreams.
Probably if I had my choice of whom I enjoy representing the most, it would be the residents at Warner, Taft, and Harrison Homes, and residents of the older neighborhoods. I’ve always been a champion for the underdog. That was that led me to run for the Council, more so than the downtown and the riverfront. I had some reservations about going into politics and running for the City Council, but I already had a natural feel for dealing with many of the socioeconomic problems. My whole life has been in public service, so as a Councilman who has a district with high unemployment, high crime and a lot of social ills and social problems, I feel it’s something I can address.
Unfortunately people sometimes think government has the ability to do things that I think are really beyond the capability of the government, insofar as addressing many of the social problems. People often find no other way to solve a problem and nowhere else to turn, so they come to city hall with all kinds of problems. I’ve been extremely please with Peoria’s responsiveness and the kinds of programs we have tried to put forth to address those problems.
How should Peoria address the problems at the Peoria Housing Authority?
Like most people, I cannot say that I am at all satisfied with the quality of life being provided by public housing, particularly Warner, Taft and Harrison. The PHA executive director has been somewhat of a scapegoat, but there are a number of things that have caused the conditions that now exist – conditions which have existed for a number of years.
There has been a great deal of apathy by the general public towards public housing, and internally there has been too much turnover in terms of directors. I would challenge any company to operate well with four or five CEOs in an eight-year period. I also feel the residents are going to have to take some responsibility. Some of the things I’ve seen within the PHA can’t be blamed on anybody but the residents or the visitors. I know for a fact that some of the residents have contributed to many of the social problems by allowing drugs to come into the area, either selling drugs or using drugs. Then there are residents who trash their apartments and move out in the middle of the night.
It’s not just a simple solution of whether to keep or fire an executive director. There have been some problems on the board in terms of how it relates to the Council; a couple of years ago the mayor and Council removed the entire board and reappointed a new board. We have that kind of tension and non-continuity in terms of the board and staff. There are also a number of government rules and regulations that tie our hangs in terms of public policy; they also contribute to the instability and problems of public housing. Unfortunately, Peoria pretty much reflects public housing across the nation. Every once in a while you read about exceptionally managed public housing, but not often. In Chicago it’s so bad that HUD has taken over its operation.
Can the PHA turn the corner? What kinds of solutions have to be proposed?
I’m optimistic about a turnaround and achieving some core agreements – tightening up and having a no-nonsense operation. One thing that contributes to PHA problems is a very active public legal aid program – Prairie Legal Services. The PHA often attempts to evict problem tenants, but it becomes a very tedious and long process because of the efforts of Peoria Legal Services. I certainly support everybody’s right to be protected, but it appears that, compared to Springfield or Champaign, our public legal aid is far more active and far more successful in delaying evictions. I talk to a lot of other cities with public housing and I’m sometimes shocked to hear that when they run into a problem with tenants who are even a week or two late with rent payment, they are immediately evicted. In Peoria, it takes us forever to get rid of problem tenants. They almost take the attitude that there’s not much you can do to them because they’ll just contact Prairie Legal Services and they will protect them. It sometimes takes up to six months or a year to get rid of them.
Years ago, many of the people that lived in public housing were working people who really could not afford homes. We have to define the purpose of public housing. Is it permanent housing for low income people, or should it be transitional – a place to stay until you get something going on your own? Today it’s a well-known fact that many families have been there for generations, so it certainly hasn’t’ been temporary for them. Residents who feel it’s temporary and do get a job, often move on. But all it leaves behind are people who are not working. Ninety-five percent of people who live in public housing are not employer, a high percentage of them are females with children.
So we have people who, for the most part, are economically powerless and, to some degree, even powerless in terms of disciplining or controlling their children, because there’s not many men as a part of the so-called family structure to assist in regulating the behavior of children. All we’ve done is pile together people with a lot of social problems, so it’s not surprising that there’s not much motivation. Children never wake up and see someone going to work. I know several youngsters who live in public housing who can’t name anybody in their family who has a job – not just a mother or father, but a brother, sister, aunt or uncle. Many people live in an environment where there is nothing to motivate them to any way of living other than making money by selling drugs, prostituting, or doing negative kinds of things. Those are the only viable ways of making money in that kind of environment, which to me is very sick.
Is scattered site housing part of the answer?
Part of the new philosophy is that we need to get away from dense housing projects as they were developed in the 40s, 50s and 60s. That contributes to the problem. I’m a strong supporter of scattered site housing. As I’ve indicated at City Council meetings, our Section 8 properties should be some of the best properties in a neighborhood. Unfortunately now they’ve created negativism and people don’t want to live there.
Section 8 property has received a lot of negative publicity and has been given a bad rap, to the point that many people think that all problem properties must be Section 8 properties. In fact, in 60 percent of the cases, that’s not so.
There’s been some abuse by the landlords in not taking care of the properties and allowing the tenants to create the problems in the neighborhoods. Their income certainly is stable, because they get their money from the Feds, whereas in the private sector, sometimes landlords have to run down tenants to get their money. It appears that the amount of rent money being received from a Section 8 probably equals and often exceeds the market value. The landlords can’t say they don’t have the money to fix houses up. On top of that, these homes are to be inspected and approved. In addition, there are leases and contracts between the owners of the property and the PHA, and the owners and tenants.
My feeling is that it’s a privilege, not a right, to live in a house paid for by the government. If you can’t maintain your household in terms of proper behavior and taking care of the property, you need to be evicted because there are too many people on a waiting list that would appreciate it. The same goes for landlords who abuse property; they need to be taken out of the program and replaced with landlords who do want to comply with the regulations. This is a program we should be able to turn around. I think it will happen. Unfortunately there area lot of neighborhood associations opposed to any kind of a program associated with public housing. I don’t think the housing itself is a problem – it’s how it’s managed and operated, and the negative perceptions that taint people.
Although the city of Peoria is seeing millions of dollars of commercial investment, the overall trend over the past few years has been a flight of people, business and money to suburban areas. What can be done to stem this tide in the future? Is there a real conflict between maintaining basic city services and financing new development?
Representing the older part of town (and one which in my opinion is still very much undeveloped) it bothers me to drive down Southwest Washington Street and see all of the abandoned commercial and industrial facilities. To some degree, we’re spending additional money on new infrastructures – trying to extend new sewer lines and water lines to underdeveloped areas – when in fact we haven’t fully developed or redeveloped the resources we are already in control of. This kind of development probably would not require huge investments in infrastructure. I certainly would like to come up with some sort of a plan to redevelop these areas.
Outside of the parochial interests of my district, we have the capacity and the responsibility to continue to grow as a community, balancing both traditional, basic services in our older parts of town with the resources necessary for new growth. I try not to pit one against the other; I don’t think that kind of conflict is in the best interests of anyone. We have the capacity to deal with continued growth as well as the stabilization of older areas.
In our community, during the past year or two, we’ve certainly had a couple of examples of “neighborhood positions” vs. “commercial development positions.” The Council gets caught between trying to support neighborhoods and trying to support new development. Sometimes we side with the neighbors to the point that we lose new development, and sometimes we side with the developers to the chagrin of the neighbors. In many of these cases, I think compromises can be reached without having a negative impact on either.
It disturbs me, although it is just a fact of life, that the largest budget we have is the police budget. The whole purpose of the police department is to protect us from each other, and to me that’s a sad commentary. We spend some $14-15 million protecting ourselves from each other – in terms of personal safety and protection of property. As a nation that prides itself on being kind of a Christian, sane and concerned country, we probably spend as much, if not more, on local, state, and federal police than most nations. If those dollars could be used for something more positive we would have the capacity for a lot more growth.
Part of the reason we are restricted in things like housing rehabs and sidewalks is that we probably put half our resources in staffing the police department and fire departments. And there’s more perception and fear of crime than there’s ever been and our budget is bigger than it’s ever been.
Maybe I’m an idealist, but one of my biggest frustrations as a councilman is that neighbors don’t get along, neighborhood associations compete, and we spend a lot of time on the Council trying to negotiate in the community, as well as within the Council. People need to put aside their hidden agendas, quit refusing to work with another person or group, and get along. Not working together requires a great deal more effort, time, and money.
The Peoria City Council is in the process of selecting a new city manager. What do you think Peoria needs in a city manager? How has the council/manager form of government worked in Peoria over the last decade?
First of all, I’m a strong supporter of the council/manager form of government. It minimizes political-type control. Bringing in a professional to implement the policies established by the council, and to run the day-to-day operations, is a much better way of running city government than having a mayor pick and choose the department heads, as they do in larger cities. I feel very good about the leadership provided by our department heads. They are very professional and knowledgeable. Our need in a city manager isn’t so much a person who has all the specific ability and technical things, as hiring somebody who can bring the best out of people who are already there. It’s very important that this person have the “soft skills” – good interpersonal skills, problem-solving, arbitration and negotiation.
I’m hoping we will be able to fill this position within the next 30 to 60 days. I feel very confident that our acting city manager will keep the ship afloat, so I don’t feel any kind of urgency. The day-to-day operations will run as usual, whether there’s someone sitting in that office or not. City government can pretty much operate itself. I don’t sense any crisis.
Tell us about Urban Diversified Services and Universal Professional School.
The highlight of my life is the two businesses I operate, and right now they are probably where I spend the least amount of time. I can easily spend 40-50 hours a week just on city council business which makes it very difficult to operate your own business, especially a business like mine where I am basically the business.
What I find most challenging is helping people reach their potential. A lot of what I do through Universal Professional School is motivate people through a program called “Increasing Your Effectiveness.” It’s a proven national program that really works, used by many of the Fortune 500 companies. I found out about the programs while I wan in the process of developing my own programs and training modules. My partner David Duncan’s wife, who worked at Caterpillar, came home one evening with a book called “Increasing Human Effectiveness.” David called me and said all of the things we were trying to put together, plus more, were right in this book, along with some videos.
We contacted the school, and went through the sessions. We were there with Exxon, AT&T, Bank of America, and most of the major corporations. I was the only minority in my class of 40, and David was the only minority in his class of 40. When people saw I was with Urban Diversified Services, they asked “What company is that?” I indicated that my interest was to take this same program and focus it not on people who were already successful and in management, but people on the bottom rung of the ladder – to help them overcome their self-imposed handicaps.
There are a lot of people who lose faith in themselves, who have become discouraged. People are born to win and conditioned to lose. Young kids feel they can do anything and be anything. As they get older they are told by their parents that they’re too small to play football or too short to play basketball, and so they kind of go from being giants in their own mind to being midgets; they become conditioned that they can’t do things. The whole purpose of our program is to help people realize that they have far more potential than they think. We do that with companies and individuals. Our focus is working with people in public housing or working with minority community-based organizations. The Edge Learning Institute was so intrigued by our desire to work with a totally different kind of a client that they made us an official affiliate of their organization.
This is the kind of programs that walks you through plans to get your life in order. We do the same kinds of things for organizations. For example, we did a program on cultural diversity with a company which has problems with employee relationships – foreigners employed by the company, and traditional black and white conflicts.
I’m extremely excited about my business. I’m anticipating being able to work with our youth; I have some appointments with some judges to see if we can use our programs to help some of the problem youth going through the juvenile system. There are other companies in Peoria that have expressed an interest in coming in and doing some management training.
If you could give a message to the Peoria business community, what would it be?
I feel very positive about the business community. There are a number of individuals and companies that have really taken on a corporate responsibility in the community. I guess the go recognize that companies can be no stronger than their communities. Most of my experiences have been very positive. Whenever I’ve called on business leaders for assistance, even in dealing with social problems and social issues, they have been very positive and responsive for the most part.
There are still many people who do now have the opportunity to be part of a good company. I’m really concerned about the future. In a sense, we as a nation and a community are reaching the point where we are beginning to shoot ourselves in the foot. We’ve probably got more people that need to work, want to work, and are able to work than at any other time in the history of our nation. But because of technology and a new way of doing things, we really don’t need as many people as we did in the past. To me, that’s the real conflict we’re going to be facing in America.
The racial issue will continue, becoming more exasperating by the disparity between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” I’m not too optimistic that our job growth is going to keep up. The kinds of jobs available today certainly aren’t the kinds of jobs that pay the meaningful wages that can support the average individual. In the past, here in Peoria, a person could finish high school and work at a Caterpillar, a Pabst, or a Hiram Walker, and in most cases make very good wages. Those jobs are getting more and more limited.
Education requirements certainly are increasing at a time when a number of individuals, including middle class, white families, are unable to pay for college for their children. At the same time government programs, grants, and student loans are being cut. Out job training program here in Peoria has been cut 70 percent. We’re also beginning to push people who are on welfare to get a job. We have a job market right now that doesn’t have the capacity to absorb people that don’t have the skills, so there’s a real problem. Those are some social policies that need to be reexamined. I think, however, many times people get fed up and say things like “Well, we just need to cut welfare” and so forth. I have no problem with that, but at the same time, we need to have a viable alternative.
Is the private sector going to have to take the initiative to find some viable alternatives?
To some degree they are. Businesses are in business to do business. Most people go into business to make a living and become successful. Although I certainly feel that businesses need to put something back into the community, people need to realize that businesses are primarily bottom-line operators.
To me, jobs come into a business as a secondary thing. I don’t think most people go into business to create jobs. You need to have the jobs in order to produce your products and services. If you could do that without people, then more than likely you would. If you could do that will less people, more than likely you would. Communities are dependent on companies, and companies are dependent on communities. When the quality of life goes down in the community, companies have a hard time maintaining the kind of business they want. It takes both working hand in hand.
A lot of the problems we’re facing, and a lot of the problems that we’re going to be facing in the future, are going to require better public policy and better use of the dollar. At the same time there will have to be a partnership with the private sector to see what it can do effectively in addressing some of the social problems. Somehow we’re going to have to join hands to deal with some very complex issues. IBI