Andres Diaz describes himself as a big dreamer. Three weeks ago, he declared his candidacy for mayor of Peoria. In the first week, he said the campaign received over $1,000 in donations.
“For a local guy with no endorsements from elected officials or anything else, that’s a pretty good week,” Diaz said.
Diaz grew up in Peoria’s North Valley, attended the now-closed Woodruff High School, worked for the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission and then attended Bradley from 2004 to 2008, majoring in political science. Since then, he has worked at Caterpillar in several roles.
He added that donations would be critical in defeating incumbent Jim Ardis, who has intentions of running for his fifth consecutive term as mayor. Diaz, who moved his family back into his old neighborhood after living in Metamora, said he’s not convinced that the city is better off now than when Ardis entered his first term 15 years ago.
“Have we grown our community? Have we seen more prosperity? I think the answer to all of those is no,” Diaz said.
It’s why he wants to run for mayor. He’s critical of how the city distributes funding, regulates small businesses and maintains transparency with its citizens. He said he has personally faced challenges of obtaining land in the North Valley from the city – he prefers to go through the county instead.
But Diaz isn’t too critical of current leadership as he is optimistic about the town and its residents’ potential. As mayor, he would like to invigorate citizens to act. His website states, “instead of asking for intervention from the government, we as citizens must do the work.”
He wants Peoria citizens to be engaged in local politics, an area evident for improvement as exemplified by the last mayoral race in 2017, when turnout was 18 percent and totaled 12,963 votes.
“It’s so poor, it really is,” Diaz said.
He’s been personally engaged by reinvesting in the community he’s grown with. Many of the vacant lots he purchases are for his farming business, Urban Acres, which provides low-cost produce. He started gardening with his father as a hobby in their backyard and had his children sell the produce off the porch.
After decent traffic and fueled with an entrepreneurial spirit, he looked to the local area to expand the business. He didn’t look far, purchasing the lot next to the vacant one of his old childhood home to establish the first field. There, he grows tomatillos, corn, peppers and jicama.
More recently, Diaz bought the lot across the street from his house to grow another large field. Just last year, he bought a building at the intersection of Spring and Monroe Street, which houses a rotation of small businesses and a commissary for food trucks.
It also has a parking lot where he hosts the North Valley Farmers Market for local gardeners and arts and crafts sellers. He has hosted up to 24 vendors each Saturday, cut down to 10 this summer due to COVID-19 precautions.
“The goal is to start new businesses here in the North Valley, which has been historically underdeveloped and has seen less and less investment from the community over the years,“ Diaz said. “I want to provide that incubator space.”
As he is expanding in the North Valley, he wants to apply that commitment and investment to the rest of the city and form his Peoria dream.
“I dream of a future where residents are engaged, where small businesses are thriving, where city services are accessible and the city is growing,” he said.
The development starts by tackling current issues. Diaz said he wants open dialogue from the community itself and establish solid two-way lines of communication. Specifically, he wants to be open to new technological tools of communications and said he would consider starting a YouTube channel to review events on the council agenda and hear from community members.
He wants to focus on getting younger people into older communities. Communities like North Valley, according to Diaz, are suitable with affordable housing and access to downtown, but the general public crosses it out of mind due to a history littered with crime and economic downturn.
“We’ve seen some redevelopment. It’s getting that message out to the broader community that this is a great, safe neighborhood,” Diaz said. “We don’t lack affordable housing. We lack people with a mindset that they can live in certain parts of town and feel safe about it.”
He also sees new opportunities in Peoria’s signature areas, namely the riverfront.
“You have to go with your strengths and what you have,” Diaz said. “If we once were a river town, how do we bring that back as it relates to today … the future River City will be people out playing in the river, who are fishing and boating in it or are living near it and utilizing the parks that we offer along that riverfront.”
Ultimately, his campaign runs on his passion for Peoria and what he would want it to be for his kids. If he wants to see change, he is the type of person to attempt to instill it.
“What I have behind me, is that when I put my mind to something, I do it,” Diaz said. “I’m not a seasoned politician. I’m not some huge business person in town. I’m just your average joe who’s fighting for the rest of us.”
Diaz also addressed the Bradley bubble – a term used by students to define the microcosm culture the university manifests with campus activities and extracurriculars that often prevent students from experiencing the city – and provided some advice.
“Enjoy your bubble,” Diaz said. “Enjoy your college years. Enjoy your youth. But explore … Be willing to be adventurous and don’t be willing to buy into all of the narratives that Peoria is not a safe community.”
To the Bradley students coming in this fall, he wanted to pass on his passion for Peoria and the ability to bring change.
“Go make a difference somewhere where you can make a difference,” he said. “If you can’t have fun in Peoria, bring that fun. Invest in something, do something to make that fun.”