Is Grand Rapids poised to become the next Chicago?
Tom Almonte thinks so.
The athletic, outdoors-loving native of the Dominican Republic says we're at the precipice of regional greatness.
"We are growing in our evolution as a city and a community," says Almonte, who on Oct. 13 became Grand Rapids' assistant city manager. "We have the potential to become the next Chicago. In Michigan, we may be there; I think it is already happening."
Almonte, 36, says Grand Rapids is getting noticed beyond the Great Lakes region. A mid-October business trip to Washington, D.C. drove the point home.
There he was, in the nation's capital, pitching Grand Rapids to a selection committee for a lucrative event he declined to identify. Just to be invited, he stressed, was an honor.
"Ten years ago, there's no way we'd even be at the table talking to them about coming to Grand Rapids," Almonte says. "If you go to Michigan, why not go to Detroit? But now, with the changes that have taken place here, the word is getting out to these higher-profile organizations."
Residents should be proud of the city's heritage, but also remain open to positive economic change not necessarily linked to furniture, he says.
"I think the goal is not to walk away from being the Furniture City, but to communicate to others in our region and our nation that Grand Rapids is diversifying into other areas, such as medical and renewable energy," he says.
Poised for change
Major U.S. cities struggling with budget deficits and dwindling revenues need to adapt to survive: Grand Rapids is no different, Almonte says.
"We are not the only ones; cities across the nation are looking at ways to transform how we do business," he says. "A lot of industries are forced to do that and government needs to find ways to become leaner. We have no choice."
Indeed, the hand-writing is on the wall. Michigan's recently-approved budget for 2010 includes an 11 percent cut in state aid to local governments.
Grand Rapids already has a $6.5 million operating deficit for the current fiscal year and, come July, faces a $24 million operating deficit for the 2010-11 fiscal year, assuming the current financial crisis does not worsen.
As former business developer in the city's Economic Development and Equal Opportunity departments, Almonte sees where the city needs to go. This includes the often angst-ridden consolidation of city departments and elimination of services.
"It is no longer a luxury, but a necessity," Almonte says. "The city cannot be all to all people. Some services will have to stop or be provided by other organizations.
"Obviously we'd never stop providing police and fire, but we have to maintain a balance between a lean, sustainable community and one that is attractive to people who are thinking about where they want to live."
He says he is aware of the needs of small businesses and minority-owned businesses, having served as president of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. His resume includes work on myriad boards, including the Grand Rapids Symphony, the Convention Arena Authority and the Dominican American National Roundtable.
Almonte can relate with many of the issues facing Midwest families – from the cost of living to finding quality child care. He and his wife, a teacher for Wyoming Public Schools, are raising three children between the ages of 6 years and 6 months old. Almonte knows how to stretch a dollar.
"I'm extremely frugal," he says. "A piece of gum can last me several days…as I cut small pieces at a time."
The leaner look of City Hall requires help from community organizations and residents.
"It could mean that a group of neighbors volunteer to keep a city park in good condition," Almonte says. "We desperately need our community to come together to ensure that some of these services remain available."
He likens the community involvement to what he sees in smaller cities, such as his wife's hometown of Ravenna, in Muskegon County. Examples include shoveling snow away from fire hydrants, raking matted leaves from storm sewer grates and mowing overgrown weeds at vacant lots rather than waiting for city crews to respond.
"We want to get a foundation of residents doing more," he says. "We can help facilitate the process as we move forward on how to engage the citizens. This is our community; we all have a responsibility to do that."
Reaching out includes a willingness to shop locally and support local merchants. Almonte calls small businesses "the backbone" of the economy.
"We should continue to invest in their development and growth to ensure that they remain healthy, thus helping our local economy," he says. "I would rather see 1,000 small businesses adding new jobs to our local economy than one large company expanding by 1,000 new jobs."
Though he's not necessarily a tree-hugger, Almonte has a passion for the environment -- be it tent-camping in Newaygo State Park with his family or encouraging homes and businesses to become energy efficient.
Grand Rapids already is an urban pioneer in this regard, being home to the first LEED-certified art museum and YMCA in the world. West Michigan, he proudly notes, is # 1 in the U.S. for green buildings per capita and # 4 for registered LEED-certified buildings.
"We must continue our work in encouraging sustainable buildings," Almonte says.
The green initiative, he says, not only reduces energy costs but serves as a carrot for attracting outside businesses.
Even the small stuff has an impact, he says, noting the city's recent decision to stop using bottled water to reduce waste. So, does Almonte drink bottled water?
"Yes, out of convenience," he says, "if we go to the park or I am out flying somewhere. But when we are home, we drink tap water. And the water here is very good, so why not?"
Getting city residents to embrace earth-friendly practices is an on-going process. "Many of our citizens are not as passionate about doing those sorts of things, so we have to work at getting people passionate."
Almonte is not suggesting solar panels or wind turbines for every home, it can be as simple as starting a backyard compost pile.
A lot of little efforts, he says, add up.
"The current financial crisis will pass," he says. "The current steps Grand Rapids is taking . . . will help us become the next Chicago in 10 to 25 years."
Former Home & Garden Editor for The Grand Rapids Press, John Hogan is a journalist with more than two decades of professional experience covering everything from homicides to hostas.
Tom Almonte assistant city manager of Grand Rapids (3)
View of Grand Rapids from the office of the assistant city manager
Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved