Grand Rapids is losing a bridge builder

October 10, 2008
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Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell characterized outgoing longtime City Manager Kurt Kimball as a bridge to everywhere and as a man who brought good things to the city.

“Kurt leaves a significant legacy after nearly 22 years as city manager. His ability to bridge between business and government, philanthropy and human service, has made him a key player in the rebirth of downtown and the rejuvenation of our economy,” said the mayor.

Even though Kent County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio has often found himself on the opposite end of an issue with Kimball, Delabbio said Kimball is “more than a colleague”; he considers him a “very close personal friend.”

“Kurt is well respected in the city management community, not only locally, but also nationally. Grand Rapids is losing one of the finest, most capable city managers in the country. He has dedicated his entire professional career to the city he loves,” said Delabbio.

Kimball took over the city’s top executive post in 1987 at age 36. Last week he announced he would step down at the end of the year to spend more time with his family.

The Business Journal caught up with Kimball last week for a chat; here are highlights of that conversation.

BJ: So what’s next for you?

Kimball: I have not finalized my plans for the future after Dec. 31. At the moment, a “sabbatical” for a month or two sounds good. Before or after that, I intend to find an opportunity that will utilize my skills and keep me involved in important work related to the economic growth and development and/or quality of life in the region. I am a public policy wonk at heart and will continue to care deeply about public policy issues and other great community debates and initiatives.

BJ: What gave you the greatest satisfaction as city manager?

Kimball: Believe it or not, I would say relationship building. More and more, it is necessary to develop quality and trusting partnerships to get anything done these days — especially given the permanent fiscal crisis we appear to be in. Relationship building is the key to public/private partnerships, governmental cooperation and collaboration, smooth-functioning policymaking with the City Commission, effective lobbying with the state and federal governments, good relationships with employees groups, effective leadership of city staff, etc, etc, etc. I take great satisfaction in the relationships that I have helped to build over the years.

BJ: What has left you with the greatest disappointment as city manager?

Kimball: For several years, I worked earnestly on a “Cultural Transformation” initiative with employees from across all bargaining units. We kept it going for many years, but in the end, it could not be sustained. Nonetheless, I do think we have been successful in changing the culture of the bureaucracy to “get to yes” more often, to improve customer service skills and to be more responsive. … Also, it has been grueling for me to make the difficult decisions I have had to make to downsize the organization these past seven years and to engage in difficult, but very necessary labor negotiations to reduce our production costs.

BJ: Are you recommending Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong as your replacement?

Kimball: Eric DeLong is fully equipped to step into my shoes without missing a beat. Others in the organization are very skilled as well. This is a City Commission appointment, however, and I don’t get to vote on my replacement. Succession planning isn’t easily executed in the public sector.

Finally, the Business Journal asked Kimball if he thought his retirement from the city would turn out the way Robert White’s had a few years ago. White was the city’s longtime fiscal services director, and after he left the city he took a similar post with Kent County.

Kimball smiled, paused and said, “Well, Daryl hasn’t offered me anything yet.”

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