Grand Rapids First Lady Of Parking

August 9, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Proving that the old misogynistic adage is silly and without an ounce of truth, she showed them she could drive. Plus, she showed them she could park, too.

And because she can do both, Pam Ritsema started driving the city’s Parking Services Department as its acting director on July 1.

A bit of local history was made when she accepted the position last month, as Ritsema became the first female to ever head the only city agency that relies solely on the revenue it generates to pay its way — as city tax dollars can’t be found anywhere in its $7 million annual budget.

Longtime Parking Services Director Ted Perez, who took early retirement after 28 years with the city and 10 in the top parking post, handpicked Ritsema to replace him, telling the Business Journal in June that she was the most qualified person for the job.

A month later, Deputy City Manager Eric Delong made it official by naming Ritsema acting director and publicly invited her to apply for the permanent position.

“I would say having Ted Perez as my supervisor,” said Ritsema of what she considered to be her biggest career break. “He was not only willing to provide me with challenging and significant work opportunities, but he was also willing to promote my work to senior city management.

“I was pleased that he had that level of confidence in me, believing that I could be successful in this position,” she added.

Ritsema has been with Parking Services since December 1997 when she was hired as an administrative analyst, handling all the parking data and much of the finance work for the agency. She started with the city 11 years ago, working in the Income Tax Department as a withholding examiner.

“I think once you’re there, you never get out,” she joked about working in the low profile tax department. “There is very little exposure outside the department when you’re in income tax. You’re kind of like in a cubicle in the corner, and that doesn’t help when you’re looking to be promoted to other jobs or departments.”

Well, Ritsema is under the spotlight now. Her department is one of the most visible city agencies, with its own nine-member board and seven city commissioners overseeing the operation.

Her responsibilities are more broadly public, too, than when she was with income tax, as Parking Services is directly involved with shaping neighborhood business districts and influencing privately driven economic development projects in the city.

“We’re trying to complete the Monroe Center 2 ramp, which is a 550-space ramp that is scheduled to open in July 2003. It also has 13,000 square feet of retail, restaurant or office space on the first floor that we are seeking to lease,” said Ritsema of her top project.

“I’m also heavily involved in a couple of parking and transportation demand management studies, one for the Michigan Hill area and a similar one in the Heartside area.”

Those are the kind of heavy-duty responsibilities that the general public doesn’t associate with her job. When she tells people where she works, she said most think that her office is one of those dinky tollbooths stationed at entrances of city-owned ramps and lots, instead of the $13 million parking facility that doubles as the department’s headquarters.

“They think I work in a parking booth,” she said with a smile.

“In essence, I’m in charge of an organization that has 120 full- and part-time employees and a $7 million operating budget. And every day, there is a new set of questions. But I like it because it keeps me intellectually engaged.”

Something else that keeps Ritsema intellectually engaged is her family. Her husband, Paul Blossom, has a Ph.D and is COO of Stryon Inc., which merged with Halcyon Software Inc. in June. Pam and Paul have five children — three sons and two daughters — ranging in age from nine to 21.

Ritsema, a GR native, graduated from Calvin College and earned her master’s degree in public administration from Grand Valley. She likes to spend her free time hiking and does so whenever she can convince a family member to join her. She also likes to read. Most recently she finished “Five Frogs on a Log,” a book on how to handle transition in the business world.

Ritsema said she would apply for the permanent director position, but wasn’t certain when the job would be posted. In the meantime, she will continue to lead the department, which is short of administrative personnel because about a third of that staff took the city’s early retirement offer.

“I want to continue the commitment to excellence that was started by Ted when he was here,” said Ritsema of her immediate future. “I’d like to see a successful, well run, customer service oriented Parking Services Department.”

As for being the city’s first lady of parking, Ritsema said she didn’t feel any extra pressure as the first of her gender to head the department. But she did say that she felt a little more tension being the first working mother to direct the agency.

“Not that I’m under more scrutiny,” said Ritsema. “But I am viewed as representative of working mothers. So my success or failure, either correctly or not, will be seen as a success or failure for working mothers.”           

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