Tom Almonte takes an optimistic approach
"I know that you know what the weather is like there. But don't ask me why they didn't think about North or South Carolina … you know? Fine, I'm not going to ask for Florida or Texas — but c'mon," he joked about his parents choosing to move to Michigan.
"But they liked it here. They had a close friend of the family who lived here and they always thought very highly of the city," added Almonte, who was named assistant to the city manager of Grand Rapids last October.
Almonte said what he likes most about his relatively new position is being able to work closely with City Manager Greg Sundstrom, who has sketched out a five-year plan to change the way the city delivers its services.
"He is excited about the future of the organization and he makes other people feel comfortable in his presence. I like the opportunity to work with the executive team to transform the organization," said Almonte.
"There were obviously many, many qualified candidates to choose from. I think one of the qualifications that I ranked above everyone else was I was good looking. That was included in there — you needed to be good looking. So I think that's the one that just barely put me over the edge," he said with a very large laugh.
Just two months after city commissioners appointed their new city manager, Sundstrom added Almonte to his staff. He chose Almonte over eight other qualified candidates for the post that he once held, partly, Sundstrom said, because of his "rich background" in community involvement, a personal history that grew through his presidency of the Hispanic Chamber of West Michigan.
In turn, Almonte has made it easier for the city's Hispanic residents to communicate with City Hall.
"He worked diligently on the city's Spanish-Speaking Customer Service Improvement Team, concentrating in the areas of translation, signage in City Hall and technology. I am very pleased with Tom's contributions to our organization and look forward to his continued commitment," said Sundstrom.
Almonte has been with the city since 2004. He worked in the Economic Development and Equal Opportunity offices as a business developer prior to his recent promotion. Mayor George Heartwell said the city feels very fortunate to have Almonte on the team.
"He brings together the qualities of hard work and good spirit," he said.
"Also, Tom is well-networked in the neighborhoods of Grand Rapids and highly respected by citizens who have worked with him. I think this respect is earned as the result of his optimistic view of the world and his genuine enjoyment of working with diverse communities of people."
Working with those diverse communities has been part of Almonte's make up since his college days when he started El Voceiro Hispano — a newspaper aimed at the city's Hispanic population — with Andres Abreu, the paper's current editor and publisher. He left the news business to become the business manager for the Crisis Care Network, a crisis management firm that has an office in Byron Center.
"From here they managed cases nationwide, and right out of college I became the business manager," he said. "As a matter of fact, we provided service to the state of New York during 9/11. We were selected to do that."
Almonte did not set out to work in the public sector. He earned a degree in business administration, not public administration from Grand Valley State University. So how did he end up at the city?
"I think something that is unique about this organization is (that) although it's a public entity, it's really run like a private entity. You know, I was one of those (people) that, many times when I talked to someone who worked in the public sector, I used to view all of them through the same lens: If you don't make it in the private sector, then you go to the public sector. It's one of those stereotypes," said Almonte.
"While it may be accurate in some other organizations in different cities, that's not the case here. Maybe that's the reason it's so appealing for me — because I'm working with a top caliber of individuals here. They're very driven, similar to any other private company."
Tom and his wife, Theresa, live in Kentwood with their three young children.. Sophia is 7 years old, while Jeremiah is 3. The baby of the family is Natalie and she hasn't quite turned 2 yet.
"My wife and I love to take the kids to John Ball Zoo in the summer. We visit parks and we also love to go camping. For places to visit, we love the downtown setting of Grand Rapids," he said.
"Once a year, Theresa and I treat ourselves to an overnight stay in a city. We went to Chicago one year, and then realized we already have some of Chicago's big-city flair right within our own city. Now, we treat ourselves to a hotel stay in downtown Grand Rapids — astonishingly beautiful scenery, especially overlooking the Grand River with the glare of the city lights and the flow of a river filled with life beneath the running waters."
Besides the scenery, there is another element of the city that the Almontes, including the kids, admire: the restaurant scene. "Eating is always a celebration for us no matter what the food is. My wife and children love to eat out at restaurants, so we're always trying some new eatery in town. There are such a variety of places to eat — from low-end-priced foods to high-end classy restaurants," he said.
Tom and Theresa have been married for nearly 11 years. They met as students while both worked at Wedgwood Christian Youth and Family Services. She was enrolled at Aquinas College, while he attended Grand Rapids Junior College before he transferred to GVSU. They dated for five years before they became engaged. Theresa teaches third- and fourth-graders in the Wyoming Public School System. Almonte said he is grateful that they get help with the kids from family members and friends.
"It really does take a village to raise a child. My mom watches two of our children, while Sophia, the oldest, attends school. A friend drives Sophia to and from school. I drop off the children in the morning to my mom's and my wife picks them up. My parents and sister and brother-in-law really help us to be able to function as a balanced family," he said.
"When we are home from work, we try to spend as much time just being together as a family, even if that means adjusting our schedule when Theresa or I catch up on some of our work tasks during a weekday or weekend."
In the little spare time that he has, Almonte said he likes to fly fish, read and run — but only on weekends — and he has taken part in the Fifth Third River Bank Run. "Theresa and I have a strict schedule during the week. However, we try to leave our weekends free to spend time with the kids in the evenings," he said.
Besides leading the Hispanic chamber, Almonte also has served as a member of the Grand Rapids Public Schools Facilities Steering Committee, and he was on the search committee at Grand Rapids Community College when it was looking for a new president after Juan Olivarez left for Kalamazoo. He also has been a trustee of the Legal Assistance Center.
Almonte is currently on the committee to honor Cesar E. Chavez, the former president of the United Farm Workers of America who died 17 years ago and whom the late Senator Robert Kennedy called "one of the heroic figures of our time." Almonte also is on the Operations Committee for the Convention and Arena Authority, is a member of the Dominican American National Roundtable and sits on the board of directors for Grand Rapids Symphony.
Almonte admitted the mayor was right: He is an optimist.
"I am, and sometimes it might be to the point of annoying," he laughed. "Because I believe whatever challenges that you face, whether it's personal or related to your job, it's to make you better. And I do believe that's the case. Challenges are literally a door to a new level of where you can rise to."
With that being said, for his immediate future Almonte plans to stay right where he is, facing the city's toughest financial challenge in years. That's because the door to his next level is most likely located on the sixth floor of City Hall.
"I plan to remain here. The role that I'm playing is very complex, and the fact that I get to learn directly from Greg how to be a city manager — if I were ever to determine that's the next stage — it doesn't get any better. I get to work very close with someone who is a great teacher. He is patient to see you grow and expand to a new level," said Almonte.
"I think I will take as much advantage as I can of this opportunity."