Stypula Heads GVMCs Table

August 8, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Although born in Detroit and raised in Livonia, he likes the values on this side of the state. Some might even remember him as a news reporter for AM radio station WMAX in the late 1970s. If not, they’ll soon get a chance to meet him in person as the new executive director of the Grand Valley Metro Council.

Don Stypula has been settling in as the leader of the region’s planning agency for two weeks now, having taken part in his first board meeting last week. Last month, he emerged as the choice of the GVMC search committee to replace longtime director Jerry Felix. He beat out 64 other candidates for the top post at the organization, which hopes he can provide more legislative clout in Lansing.

He feels he can do that after 13 years with the Lansing-based Michigan Municipal League, where he represented cities and villages in environmental and transportation issues. He plans to do that by working with business groups like the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and The Right Place Inc.

“If I’m going to jump into this job, I’m going to jump into it 100 percent,” he said.

So far he has. Stypula has arrived at his Trust Building office by 6:30 every morning, even earlier on some days, and has spent the past few weeks in one meeting after another getting acquainted with those he needs to know.

But getting here was another thing. It wasn’t an automatic decision that he should leave the MML. After all, the 50-year-old Stypula had been with the League since he was 37 and his family liked living in Lansing. So when the opportunity arose for him to come here, he needed a bit of coaxing from his wife of 24 years, Janice.

“I hadn’t done a resume in 13 years. I had no reason to. I thought I was going to make the League a career. I really did,” he said. “Then Janice told me one thing: There is never going to be a time again when somebody is going to pull the chair out for youat the head of the table and invite you to sit down.

“So I said, ‘Okay, dear.’ I tapped out a resume and a cover letter, and that is how the whole process got started.”

The public-sector career that Stypula has enjoyed for the past 29 years got started in Detroit as youngster growing up in a northwest suburb. At that time, the city truly was the motorcar capital of the world with good-paying jobs for almost everyone who wanted to put in an honest day’s work. Add Motown and the Tigers to the mix, and Detroit was a place where many wanted to live then.

“I remember Christmastime in downtown Detroit, a vibrant city. Carolers on every corner. Not a single vacant shop space. Streetcars. And Hudson’s at Christmastime was something else,’ he said.

“But over the years, I’ve seen the deterioration and the dramatic levels of disinvestment.”

Having to watch his hometown deteriorate was the catalyst that sprung Stypula into the public sector because he wanted to “chip away at that wall.” His first break toward reaching that goal came in 1977 when he was chosen to handle communications for the state Senate Central Staff in Lansing. There he worked for the Democratic caucus, as the Dems held 24 of the 38 posts then, and he also got involved with some environmental policy issues.

“At the time, I was working here in Grand Rapids. I was a morning-news anchor and the sports anchor at the old WMAX. I used to do the graveyard shift. You know, come in at 3:30, gather some news, and be on the air with the farm report at four,” he said.

Before coming here, Stypula worked as a Lansing news correspondent for radio and TV stations, and some suburban Detroit papers.

“I’ve always been intrigued by West Michigan. I like the values on this side of the state, truly. I truly like the values and the thinking on this side of the state. A little gentler, a little more collaborative and cooperative,” said Stypula, a Michigan State graduate.

But the Senate taught Stypula lessons that he couldn’t learn here. He saw how legislation was crafted, as he put it, through his inside view of how the give and take between interest groups and lawmakers turned bills into laws.

“Just to watch that process of crafting legislation, from a different perspective, sparked my interest in a whole bunch of areas,” he said of his switch from reporter to insider.

Don and Janice have two daughters. Rebecca this month starts her senior year at GVSU to finish her biology degree, while Heather begins her academic journey toward becoming an elementary school teacher at WMU in just a few weeks. The Sytpulas bought a house in Kentwood and will become empty nesters for the first time in 21 years next month.

Janice has spent the last 25 years as an engineering technician for Consumers Energy doing electronic mapping of the firm’s natural gas holdings. When she finishes those, she will start on the company’s electric properties. In their spare time, they bike, hike, take in a movie, dine out, and travel.

Although Stypula still has some catching up to do yet before he will be fully comfortable in his new post, he does seem ready to manage the relations of the 32 cities, townships, and villages that comprise the Metro Council and make Lansing lawmakers more aware of the planning agency. In fact, compared to his days at the Municipal League, where his duties stretched across two peninsulas, Stypula eagerly welcomes the new assignments and new territory that his new job offers him.

“I was going a thousand miles an hour, 24 hours a day. It would not be unusual for my cell phone to go off at three o’clock in the morning,” he said of his MML days. “There were a lot of hours in that and there was very little ability to focus on making one particular area better.

“The job here is going so good that I told Janice on a Friday night that I can’t wait until Monday morning,” he added. “I’ve never said that about a job before and I meant it.”

Stypula’s first dozen months as executive director of the Metro Council will be his 30th year in the public-policy field. But for his first full year at the helm of the council, he plans to spend as much time learning as directing.

“As I told the staff here, for the next 12 months I’m the student, they’re the professors. I want them to teach me how they work, how they interact, and how they have propelled this area forward. What did they do, and why is it different than southeast?” he said.

“In turn, what I’m going to do for them is work on my specialty area and on things that are in my comfort zone. We need to dramatically increase the profile and the activity of the Metro Council,” he added. “Because the state capital will always be the place where decisions that affect our lives the most are made. We’re in the dark right now on how these decisions are made and that is my specialty area.”           

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