If anyone has spotted Greg Sundstrom meticulously examining all the artwork on display during ArtPrize, they needn’t worry. The city’s newest manager isn’t calculating the potential tax value of those original creations. He is simply downright passionate about art and the artists who are gifted enough to form such remarkable concepts.
“My goal is to see every single piece. I personally believe that art is important; it’s a reflection of our culture. I want to absorb as much of the diversity of culture that I possibly can, and an easy way to do that is to look at this art,” he said.
“I do not have any of those talents. But I do, on my limited income, try to collect as much art as I can. I’m colorblind and really have no deep understanding of the meaning of art, but I surely do enjoy nearly any form of art because, again, it’s an expression of creativity and an expression of culture.”
Even though Sundstrom isn’t artistically inclined, he has turned his administrative talents into an art form of sorts, and he credited his predecessor for much of the fine tuning. When asked what he considered to be the biggest break in his lengthy, successful career, Sundstrom quickly answered that it was being mentored by the man he replaced in his current post: Kurt Kimball, who served as city manager for 22 years before retiring at the end of last year.
At the time Kimball left, Sundstrom had worked his way up to acting deputy city manager and chief services officer. He applied for the top position along with dozens of others who learned of the opening through a national search.
It was because of his talent for writing that he first interacted with Kimball.
“I began producing some writings for some publications the city had at that time. One was external, called ‘City Limits,’ and another was internal, called ‘The Grandrapan.’ Then City Manager Kurt Kimball said he liked my writing and invited me to do some work for him. Over the course of a few years, I ended up transferring and working directly for him — and he really taught me everything I know about being in the seat I am in now,” said Sundstrom.
After graduating from Grand Valley State University with a public administration degree, Sundstrom began his career with the city as an intern in 1982 in the streets and sanitation department, where he stayed for roughly the next 11 years. He began his rise when he became an administrative analyst in 1993, the year he began working with Kimball. Three years later, he was promoted to administrative services officer. Two years after that promotion he became an assistant to the city manager, and just a year later, in 2006, he was named assistant city manager.
His 27-year career with the city took a giant step forward last July 29 when commissioners chose Sundstrom over his friend and longtime co-worker, Eric Delong, as the city’s newest chief executive. On Aug. 11, he took the oath of office to serve the city’s residents to the best of his ability.
“We are a great city and together we will become the envy of the world. I pledge to you my endless loyalty, professional management of this organization and dedication to the improvement of the lives of our citizens,” he said that night.
It was a night that 2nd Ward City Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss also celebrated. She has known and worked with Sundstrom for most of the past five years, and she told the Business Journal that she has found him to be an “honest, straight-forward, genuine, trustworthy and extremely hard-working” guy.
“Greg is a problem solver. He addresses problems head on and works to find a solution,” she said. “He brings people together, listens, asks challenging questions and facilitates a process that is focused on finding solutions.
“I greatly appreciate his commitment and dedication to our city, and to making city government more efficient, responsive, open, and focused on providing excellent services and customer service,” she said.
Mayor George Heartwell simply added, “What’s not to like about Greg.”
As for what he likes best about his new position, Sundstrom said that, first, he appreciates being surrounded by the talented city employees who also have dedicated their careers to public service. He said it was an “honor” to work alongside them. Second on his list was getting out and meeting the people of Grand Rapids, like local business owners, who form the “fabric” of the community.
“We have some really interesting people, interesting businesses, people doing interesting things. It’s always a pleasure (to meet them). I always learn something new every time. It gets you out of the drudgery of the day-to-day operations of running a municipal corporation and reminds you of why we are here — and that is to serve the public,” he said.
The toughest challenge Sundstrom and the city will face this year is balancing the general operating budget, which has faced shortfalls requiring dips into reserves for tens of millions of dollars and cuts to staff by 350 over the last seven years. The latest deficit is expected to be around $21 million, but could grow to $24 million if the state lowers its revenue-sharing payment to the city even further.
“It’s a very large operating deficit, and my professional staff is looking at creative ways to consolidate our services with other municipalities, at privatization, to form partnerships with the private sector and with other governmental agencies to try to reduce the cost of providing services. But invariably it will result in a reduction of city services and a layoff of city employees,” he said.
“To put it in context, I hope we’re able to find several creative solutions. But if I had to resolve all of the budget difficulty with layoffs, I would be forced to lay off another 250 people in just this upcoming year.”
Sundstrom knows that some residents don’t understand how dire the financial situation is for the city and other local governments. He said that hardly a day goes by without someone telling him to just trim the “fat” from the spending plan and get city employees to work harder.
“I’m not debating whether there is waste or fat or that we can work harder. But the problem is way beyond that. It’s a structural problem that really has to do with revenue decline, which is really caused by the economy,” he said.
“But it’s also caused by the state of Michigan. The state has changed the landscape of how they were funding all cities across the state for the last 60 years, and they’ve done this for the last half-dozen years. If we were continuing to receive the funding that we had for the last 60 years, the city would not be in the dire condition it is today,” he said.
Although he graduated from GVSU, Sundstrom began his post-secondary education at the University of Michigan, and his then-choice of majors stays with him today as it laid the foundation for his logical thought process.
“When I was at the University of Michigan I was a philosophy major,” he said. “But then, as I like to say, I woke up and realized it was very difficult to have a career where you could support even yourself, let alone a family, with a philosophy major.”
Sundstrom’s desire to serve the public came from someone very close to him: his father, Frank, who was in the U.S. Army and stationed in Spokane, Wash., when Sundstrom was born 51 years ago.
“I did not serve in the military, but I strongly believe in serving our country, and this is my way of serving my country,” he said, while acknowledging that his father, a native of Grand Rapids, instilled that desire in him.
Greg and his wife, Audrey, live in Grand Rapids. They’ve been married for 28 years and have two children: Courtney and Benjamin. Greg met Audrey at U-M when she asked him to help set up her stereo, as she lived in the apartment below his. Audrey earned her degree in Ann Arbor and has worked as a dental hygienist at Greenville Family Dental for nearly 30 years. “She is a saint,” he said.
Courtney graduated from the University of Michigan recently and is now working as a paralegal in a Chicago law firm. Benjamin is a senior in high school. “Courtney is taking a year after her undergraduate education and is going to law school. I don’t know where she is going to go. She is in the process of applying right now,” he said. “Between watching my kids grow up and spending time with my wife, that occupies every free moment I have.”
Those free moments are few because Sundstrom is almost as active outside of his sixth floor office at City Hall as he is in it. He serves on the staff of the Convention and Arena Authority, which oversees operations at Van Andel Arena and DeVos Place, and has a seat on the panel’s Operations Committee, an interesting group that irons out the pros and cons of issues of both buildings before they reach the full board.
Sundstrom is also a staffer with the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, the treasurer for the Regional Geographic Information System of the Grand Valley Metro Council, and secretary-treasurer for the Kent County Dispatch Authority. Those four make up just a small number of the local organizations on his lengthy community-involvement list.
As for his immediate future, Sundstrom wants to help the city continue its current upward climb on the recognition chart.
“I hope that the city of Grand Rapids, our city commission and the citizens invite me to stay until I become an old man,” he said.
“I really want to make this organization sustainable government so that we can continue to assist the private sector and our citizens to make this a great community.”