GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The City of Grand Rapids will be looking for a new city manager in early 2018.
Current City Manager Greg Sundstrom tells 24 Hour News 8 he will retire at the end of 2017.
An official announcement is planned for Tuesday during the Grand Rapids City Commission Committee of the Whole meeting.
Sitting in his sixth-floor city hall office, Sundstrom talked with 24 Hour News 8 about his love for the city, the job, the challenges and the accomplishments.
So his advice to his replacement may come as a surprise:
“If it’s a friend, I’d tell them not to take the job,” he said. “This is a tough job. It’s not worth the life that you give up.”
A month before his 60th birthday and two years after a lifesaving heart valve replacement surgery, Sundstrom said he’s come to the realization that life is short.
“I have joked that you age in dog years around here, so I’ve been doing this for 50 years, it feels like,” Sundstrom said.
Sundstrom first joined the city in 1981 as a seasonal employee. The Grand Valley State University graduate went full-time in 1986 and worked 12 different jobs with the city over the next 23 years.
He became city manager in 2009, during the Great Recession. A downturn in the housing market was hurting tax revenues and the budget was already suffering from cuts to revenue sharing and other financial losses. Five hundred jobs in the city had to be cut, and Sundstrom’s honeymoon as city manager was short-lived.
“It wasn’t even the dollars, because that’s just numbers on paper. It was laying off people,” said Sundstrom, who recalled long-time employees breaking down in tears when he had to call them into his office and tell them their jobs were being eliminated.
Sundstrom and his team implemented a transformation program that streamlined city services and the bureaucracy in general, and with help from taxpayers — who approved both millage and income tax increases — the city survived the Great Recession.
He told 24 Hour News 8 he hopes future city leaders, both elected and appointed, remember the lessons learned.
“It’s really quite phenomenal how we were able to squeeze savings out of our operations by making them more efficient,” he said. “As long as the people operating, running, the people elected to manage this organization remember what we went through in 2008, 2009, 2010, we’re going to be fine.”
But while the city’s finances are in order, constant pressures remain.
“Other issues come and fill in very quickly — between affordable housing, the decline of our tree system here in the city, the decline of our street lighting system here in the city,” Sundstrom said.
Add to that the issue facing just about every community brought on by national events in police and community relations and efforts to make cities a more equitable place for residents.
“These are huge, huge issues that need 100 percent, 110 percent of a person’s attention to really try to grab a hold of,” Sundstrom said. “I’m just tired. I think I’ve done my share of that and it’s time to turn it over to another person to try to bring in some creative ideas.”
As for his future plans, he told 24 Hour News 8 he’ll take a break and enjoy retirement before deciding on the next phase of his life.
On Tuesday, city commissioners praised Sundstrom especially for his efforts to get the city through the Great Recession, implementing permanent programs to make the city more sustainable.
Mayor Rosalynn Bliss talked about the process to replace Sundstrom, and the community input that will be part of the process.
“This is one of the most important positions in the city. This individual will work closely with the city commission, but also work really closely with all of our community partners, so finding the best person to fill those shoes is really critical,” Bliss said.
Sundstrom’s contract with the city ends on Dec. 31. But he doesn’t expect to pack up his office that day; he says he and Bliss are discussing how long he’ll stay on after his contract’s end date, as the city begins the process to find a replacement.