Making a difference in the neighborhood
“I realized that if I really wanted to make a difference, I had to be at the table where the decisions are being made as to how the funds are allocated and as to how the laws and ordinances are set up. I’ve always kind of had that desire to be a part of that process. Even throughout college, and even as I got more involved with some of the volunteer stuff, I realized it’s really at the City Commission level where I could make the largest impact,” he said.
Schaffer has represented the city’s 1st Ward, as does fellow West Side Commissioner Walt Gutowski, for 18 months. “Just before I started, I read a John Kennedy quote where he said there’s no farm school or training ground for what you do in politics, and I’ve found that to be true,” he said.
“I’ve taken it from the position of really wanting to understand what it is that we do at the city and how to make things run more efficiently. Probably just as important is how can we get citizens engaged in being a part of the community that they’re in,” he said of his goals, adding that, at this point, he plans to run for a second four-year term.
Schaffer is in his third month of what he hopes will be a long term at Macatawa Bank. He manages its downtown office. He came to Macatawa after holding a similar post at Fifth Third Bank at the Leonard and Alpine branch on the city’s northwest side.
“My responsibility here is to grow the bank. A lot of that is dealing directly with the business customers who are here and developing relationships with them, and taking care of people’s personal financial needs, as well,” he said.
Schaffer felt his big career break came after he graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in public policy and went to work for the former National City Bank as a manager in the mortgage division. He was only 25 when the bank put him in charge of the 10-member team. “Learning how to set goals, learning how to motivate a team to achieve, I think was a huge learning experience for me,” he said.
“I actually started with National City on a temporary basis just when mortgage refinancing came around. What I found was I really liked the numbers piece of it — I’ve always had an affinity for that. But I also really enjoy developing relationships,” he said.
“I found that those two things went hand-in-hand with that job. So while I didn’t have a background in finance, I got up to speed by learning from the folks that had done the job for years. Through their mentorship, I was really able to kind of pick up the pieces that I needed for the business, and then it just really became about taking care of people.”
Schaffer was born on the northeast side of Grand Rapids, moved to Comstock Park as a youngster, attended West Side Christian School and graduated from Grandville High School. Today, he lives on the northwest side with wife Carrie and their three children.
He met Carrie, a native of Holland, when they both worked as park rangers one summer at Grand Haven State Park. “I saw her and I thought, ‘I can’t let this opportunity pass by,’ and we started dating,” he said.
They married seven years ago. Carrie was an administrator with the Boys and Girls Club of Grand Rapids in the Glenn Steil Youth Commonwealth Center. But since she gave birth to twins, Brayden and Ella, three months ago, who were welcomed by older sister Addison, who is 2½, Carrie has become a full-time mother.
“She is hoping to get back there someday because she loves that organization,” he said.
Schaffer has a lengthy track record of being active in the city. He is a former president of the West Grand Neighborhood Organization and served on the Zoning Board of Appeals, but had to relinquish both posts when he was sworn into office in January 2010. He still participates with WGNO and works with Friends of GR Parks, the Boys and Girls Club and Welcome West, a coalition of westsiders that promotes the city’s west side. The group held a back-to-school parade for children last year down Leonard Street and a Winter West Fest that brought ice skating back to Richmond Park.
“Anything that we can work with to get the community engaged, that’s really something that I care about,” he said.
Something else he cares about are kids and their futures. For the past two years, Schaffer has talked to 4th graders at Sibley Elementary about the importance of saving money and how to create a budget, an idea he picked up from the American Bankers Association’s Teach Kids to Save program.
“I developed a good relationship with one of the teachers, Pat Feenstra, who lives on the west side and has just retired. I went to her class and did a four- to five-week series about teaching kids the value of saving, how to budget — or at least the thought that if you want to buy that bike, you’ve got to save the dollar you have instead of buying pop and a candy bar,” he said.
“That has been probably one of the more rewarding parts of actually taking what I know as a banker and then bringing it outside of the branch environment.”
Schaffer likes to spend his spare time outdoors hiking, kayaking with a close-knit group of buddies, and camping with Carrie and the kids. He ran track and cross country when he was younger but doesn’t do as much running now.
The city’s new fiscal year begins in a few weeks, and Schaffer has just completed his second round of helping shape the operating budget. He said it’s the toughest task he has had as a commissioner because there isn’t enough revenue to do all the things he and his colleagues would like.
He is truly appreciative that last year, in a down economy, residents raised their income taxes for five years to help the city transform itself.
“Now it’s really our responsibility to make sure that, at the end of that sunset, we have the changes put in place where we operate more efficiently,” he said. “My colleagues and I are confident that rate will go down and stay there without an additional ask.”
Schaffer plans to fill the rest of his term trying to improve the business districts and neighborhoods in the 1st Ward.
Anyone who has worked with him or has watched him work knows it doesn’t take much to make him laugh. He laughs a lot and that’s because he enjoys life.
“Yeah, I do,” he said — with a laugh, of course. “I just don’t know of any other way to do it. I think that you find, when people enjoy what they do, they perform better and they just get more things done.”