Big picture approach designs De Clercq’s path

Grand Rapids City Engineer Mark De Clercq is literally a man for all seasons. He is an outdoorsy type of guy who has been known to hitch a pack to his back and hike all year round, and then strap on his cross country skis during the state’s harshest season. His favorite outdoors spot is Isle Royale National Park, an isolated and primitive federal reserve on Lake Superior just a dozen or so miles south of Thunder Bay, Canada, which is near the top of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Now many Yoopers may do what De Clercq does. But De Clercq was born and raised in Detroit, about as far as someone can get from Isle Royale and still be inside the state’s border. Besides, Detroit is hardly a breeding ground for developing outdoor enthusiasts, unless one considers attending a Tigers game or the city’s annual jazz festival as being in the Great Outdoors. So how did De Clercq form such an intense appreciation for wide-open, undeveloped spaces?

He said it began when he was a child as his family vacationed in Ludington, a beautiful and small city along the Lake Michigan coast with plenty of space to explore and enjoy. Then De Clercq left Detroit after high school to earn his bachelor and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Michigan Tech University in Houghton. It was a location that he really took pleasure in for the years he was there.

“Oh, I did. It was fun. I really enjoyed the outdoors. I enjoyed the relatively cool and not-so-hot summers when I was up there during grad school. I enjoyed the winters a lot. On occasion, I would cross country ski back and forth to classes when I was living off campus. The big games up there were usually broomball and hockey. I did a lot of hiking in the summertime,” he said.

“Being up there, you’re in the wilderness to begin with and it’s really an outdoor enthusiast’s place to enjoy the outdoors. And I enjoy year-round outdoor activities. In winter, I’ll usually ice skate, cross country ski, or snowshoe.”

Mark De Clercq
City of Grand Rapids
Title: City Engineer
Age: 44
Birthplace: Detroit
Residence: Kalamazoo
Family: Father of four children, ages 7-13
Biggest career break: Being hired to head the city’s engineering department.

As for the biggest break he has had thus far in his stellar career, De Clercq said that came in October 2008 when he learned that the city of Grand Rapids wanted him to lead its engineering department. “It is the opportunity to be city engineer and to work as a public servant for the city of Grand Rapids. I actually really like the job. It’s a fun job. It’s got a lot of variety. The people are fun to work with. They make it very enjoyable and I’ve come to enjoy the variety of the challenges,” he said.

Over the past two years, De Clercq has worked with a lot of local construction firms that have bid on city streets and sewer projects and he said that has been an enjoyable experience, too.  “I have found them to be very nice to work with; good people to work with. They’re very committed to doing quality work and very dedicated to advancing infrastructure improvements in the city. They seem to enjoy working with the city,” he said.

De Clercq directs all the public infrastructure projects and coordinates the requests for sewer and water extensions that come from private developers. His department has four divisions: facilities, design, field, and sidewalk, and 50 employees, which is down from the 55 it had in 2002. Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong said the city has been impressed with De Clercq’s performance.

“Mark was a great find for us. The position of city engineer is exceptionally critical and we are very pleased to have found a person with his qualities to join our team. He began making contributions immediately. I rely on him to work with his team and our other professionals to solve complex infrastructure problems and deliver complex projects,” he said.

“Mark has proven the potential we saw in him in so many ways. He is taking our city engineering office’s self-supporting business model to a new level by engaging his staff in strategic planning. He is a capable facilitator, problem solver and team leader. His work with the public and our partners has been very good,” DeLong added.

“His commitment to quality, value and delivering outcomes fits in well with our transformation efforts. Mark is part of an emerging group of leaders within the city’s organization that make me feel very good about our future.”

City Planning Director Suzanne Schulz works closely with De Clercq on a number of directives and also serves with him on the Community Development Committee, which authorizes most of the construction projects that are done in the city. Schulz sees De Clercq as someone with high levels of vigor and passion for the city.

“I think Mark has a unique energy that most engineers don’t have. He is excited about the city and excited about the possibilities of what our city can become, especially from an infrastructure standpoint. He understands how design and infrastructure can play a role in creating an economically competitive city,” said Schulz.

Before he joined the city, De Clercq spent 18 years working in the private sector at Walker Parking Consultants in Kalamazoo, Spicer Engineering in Saginaw, and Lockwood, Jones & Beals in Dayton. Walker Parking has done a lot of consulting and design work for Parking Services, an enterprise fund that owns and operates the city’s system of ramps and lots, and De Clercq played a key role in projects that the department undertook and built.

“In fact, how I became attracted to Grand Rapids was through the number of projects that I worked on as a consultant for the engineering department and their various internal customers. I did a multitude of either parking ramps or surface parking lots for them. I was also a key component in the restoration of parking ramps,” he said.

“I took the restoration knowledge of that and applied it to my wastewater and water treatment plant experiences from Spicer and started to do concrete restoration for wastewater treatment facilities, such as the one in Grand Rapids. I found that to be challenging and interesting at the same time because doing that kind of work melds a lot of the experience I attained from water and sewer infrastructure combined with the experience of parking ramps,” he added.

De Clercq chose engineering because he was fascinated by construction projects as a youngster growing up in the Motor City. But unlike most youngsters who can be mesmerized by oversized machinery, pillars of rising steel and large holes in the ground, De Clercq actually liked taking science and math courses when he was young. So when he grew older he decided to become a civil engineer and he eventually made structural engineering his specialty.

“I do a lot of big-picture thinking and that kind of gives me an opportunity to explore outside my core and get to enjoy working on a variety of projects whether its mechanical, whether it’s water and sewer, architectural, budgets, or project management,” he said.

De Clercq is single and a father of four children — Robin, Luke, Sophie and Maria — who range in age from 7 to 13. He spends a lot of time with them, especially when they’re playing sports, as the kids are engaged in basketball, soccer and hockey. He makes most games and coaches whenever he can. “I coach my daughter’s soccer team for AYSO in the Kalamazoo region and I used to coach middle school and high school girls volleyball. I played volleyball for about 20 years.”

One project that is currently occupying his time is deciding which city buildings will get solar panels. The city recently received a $250,000 grant for the U.S. Department of Energy to install the panels on a few city-owned roofs and De Clercq is soliciting bids from consultants to help him make that determination through a preliminary design study. De Clercq wants the study to produce a ranking of which buildings will offer the greatest energy-cost savings from having the panels installed on the roofs. “Anytime that you can offset the power grid and relieve it, I think that you’re adding a positive, rather than weighing more heavily on the grid,” he said.

It is worthwhile to note that De Clercq moved into the city engineer’s office on Oct. 22, 2008, just a few short weeks after the nation’s entire financial system nearly collapsed in the aftermath of the subprime mortgage fiasco. As he just got settled into his chair on the fifth floor of City Hall, the unemployment rate began its steady climb and tax revenue to the city began its steep decline, a disconcerting scenario that inflated the city’s operating budget to its highest deficits and led to workforce reductions.

But as DeLong noted earlier, De Clercq is up to the task. He is also totally on board with City Manager Greg Sundstrom’s ultimatum that the city transforms the way it does business and delivers its services. So De Clercq’s immediate future is tied to helping make that transformation come true within the next few years and he will have to meet that goal with fewer available resources than previous city engineers had at their disposal. He seems to be OK with that situation, though. In fact, De Clercq sees it as a personal challenge and one he will probably remember long after it is over.

“Well, the challenge is always going to be the continuing, ongoing effort for the city’s sustainability in these trying economic times, especially in the state of Michigan and probably more so when compared to other states. Having to weather that storm, and whatever new outcomes come out of it, is going to be the challenge as we move forward through the years,” he said.

“When I think back to when I was hired, nobody probably expected to see the significant economic downturn unfold after I was hired in. To have to weather that storm and be able to be flexible in transforming our engineering department and the city in general is a huge challenge and there are a lot of people that are stepping up to the plate to make that happen. When I think back later on, that will probably be my most challenging experience over my career. And I sense that a lot of other people will probably share the same feeling when they look back on their careers.”

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