Bobby Hopewell ’96 Balances Full-Time Job, Mayor of Kalamazoo
By Doug Goodnough
If there was an award for the Busiest Person in Kalamazoo, Bobby Hopewell ’96 would be a shoo-in for it. In fact, there are a couple of Tigger plush animals sitting on a shelf in his office that friends gave him because “I bounce around” like the famous Disney animated character, he said.
The 49-year-old Siena Heights University graduate balances his full-time job as director of Hospitality Services at Kalamazoo’s Borgess Medical Center while also serving as mayor of the southwest Michigan city with a population of approximately 75,000 people.
Two jobs. One person. How does he do it?
“It takes a lot of time and energy and attention,” Hopewell said. “You’ve got both of these worlds that’s got (many) of the same things going on. They’re similar, but different, and they take a lot of time and energy. Both roles are a labor of love.”
First, a glimpse inside his hospital “world.” The former EMT and paramedic worked his way up the health care ladder, working first in an ambulance and later running ambulance operations at Gull Lake Ambulance and Life EMS. For the past nine years he has worked at Borgess, Kalamazoo’s main health care provider. He currently is responsible for approximately 250 staff members and supervises 15 managers in areas like food and nutrition, mail, switchboard and other connective services. He recently was also put in charge of emergency management, and next year will transition into a new position as of director of the new $26 million outpatient care facility currently under construction in Battle Creek.
“Meetings are a huge part of what I do here,” Hopewell said of a typical day at Borgess. “Sometimes my day starts off with back-to-back meetings.”
And every weekday at 9:20 a.m. sharp, he conducts a safety meeting to brief hospital personnel on any potential areas for concern. Then, he focuses on not only the job at hand, but his sometimes overlapping duties as mayor.
“Not much is out of alignment (between Borgess and the city of Kalamazoo),” Hopewell said. “But there are times I have to have a voice for the city. We distinctly stay in contact with all of my leadership here. … I do what I have to do. There was an understanding of that when I took on this opportunity as mayor … that there could be some rough times. But we’d worked through those as they occur. We haven’t had much.”
Currently in his sixth year as mayor, Hopewell said he treats the office like a full-time position, even though it isn’t.
“I’m not paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to do this (be mayor),” Hopewell said. “Actually, I’m not paid $10,000 a year to do this. I feel that there’s so much going on, it’s such a dynamic community, that I have to participate.”
That means going to events, meeting with community leaders and participating in civic duties that seem to never end.
“People say I’m at everything but I’m not at everything,” Hopewell said of his life as a public servant. “But I think it’s important that your mayor is doing as much as he or she can be done to promote and be the chief cheerleader and champion and bottle washer for Kalamazoo.”
Hopewell, who started his political career as a city commissioner in 2003, said he is very proud of the accomplishments Kalamazoo has achieved during his tenure in office.
He points to an early employee retirement plan that helped erase a recent $6 million budget deficit to the downtown business and cultural environment that is part of a “reinvention” of city government. He also said Kalamazoo was only one of two cities in Michigan to experience economic growth last year.
He also helps promote and nurture the Kalamazoo Promise, a 2005 pledge by a group of anonymous donors to pay up to 100 percent of tuition at any of Michigan’s state colleges or universities for graduates of the city’s public high schools.
“(Education) is the most important economic development tool that we have,” said Hopewell, who was also recently part of a mayors conference call with President Obama to discuss summer youth employment opportunities. “We still have a lot more work to do.”
He also views himself as an example of what education can do.
“It’s important as an African American that you have an opportunity to step up and be an educational role model, especially in urban communities,” he said. “Personally it gave me a sense of pride that getting that four-year bachelor’s degree was something that my mother had stressed. … I knew that there was an expectation and a path.”
He said Siena Heights was “the right fit,” for him. Hopewell received his bachelor’s degree in Public Services from SHU’s Battle Creek campus and said “I couldn’t be here (in his current position at Borgess) if I didn’t have it. I would not be here if not for Siena Heights. I recognize that.”
Calling his leadership style “collaborative and strategic,” Hopewell said he relies on a team approach to solve problems—in both jobs.
“I don’t typically force myself (on people),” said Hopewell, a former Eagle Scout who worked as a camp counselor in his earlier years. “(I want) to be involved in making something happen. We think through it and analyze and find the tactical way to move forward.”
He also doesn’t take himself too seriously.
“I take the office of mayor seriously as it needs to be taken, but I don’t take myself too seriously in that office,” he said. “I think humor has to be involved with everything.”
He said being a public servant also means being a public figure, and that means sacrificing some personal time.
“It can be challenging,” said Hopewell, who is single but considers his role with the city as sometimes “parental.” “I love people … but everyone wants your voice, wants your time. … I smile, because I think to myself ‘It’s part of the role.’ I try to put myself in their shoes.”
Hopewell said he has a strong group of friends and family who are supportive, and still finds some personal time to ride his bicycle, work out and watch science fiction movies.
“Some friends like introducing me as the mayor,” he said, smiling. “I try to stay connected to the people I love.”
He said he has no aspirations of running for state or national politics, and is happy where he is at.
“My passion is service,” Hopewell said. “I will serve where I am comfortable and where people feel comfortable with me serving. … I have the best job in the universe, being mayor of the best city in the state of Michigan. I’m good.”