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Smolinski adapts to personal, professional challenges

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Alpena City Manager Rachel Smolinski has had a heck of a ride since taking over the position in January. She went through the tenuous budget process and labor negotiations, as well as planning for how local government would operate during the COVIS-19 shutdown. She is also currently fighting breast cancer. Smolinski said despite the challenges, she is committed to working through them and being there for the people in the city who are counting on her.

For most people, 2020 has been a rollercoaster ride filled with ups-and-downs, and twists and turns.

A rollercoaster ride may be the best way to describe the last nine months for Alpena City Manager Rachel Smolinski.

After being hired to be the first woman manager of the city, she started work in late December and worked with former manager Greg Sundin for a brief time before taking the reins in January. Since then, Smolinski’s journey has consisted of leading important city business dealings for the first time, reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown, and being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Through it all, Smolinski has risen to the challenges. Despite going through treatment for cancer, she is doing what it takes to be sure residents and staff have what they need and expect from her and to help the city reach its full potential.

Smolinski said she was excited to be hired and begin her job, although it was difficult being away from her family, which remained in Harbor Springs while her kids were in school. She said early in her tenure, she was able to go through the capital improvement update plan process, as well as crafting and finalizing the 2020-21 budget.

Smolinski also played a critical role in union negotiations in helping new and fair contracts agreements be reached.

Smolinski said when she was hired, she was excited for the opportunity, and despite some of the hurdles that have been thrown her way, things were going smoothly.

“Things were fabulous. I felt like I was learning everything I needed to know, know staff, and it just seemed like business as usual,” she said. “Everything was going great, In my opinion.”

While on vacation in Arizona in February, things became more serious with the pandemic, and although there were no cases in the Alpena area at the time, Smolinski knew she needed to get back to Alpena and help make plans for when the coronavirus made its way to the area.

“As soon as I got back, we immediately sat down with the fire chief and started planning for COVID. We didn’t know what we were in for, but we knew we needed to start planning for a potential shut down and how we would protect the employees and members of the community at the same time. Two weeks later our operations and businesses were shut down. We managed to do everything we needed to pretty quickly.”

Smolinki said staff prioritized what city services were essential and many employees worked from home.

Overall, Smolinski said she believes the city made almost all the right moves leading up to and throughout the shutdown. She said there was a lot of pressure because the health of her staff and residents was at stake, but she believes everyone rallied together to do what needed to be done.

“It is natural to question yourself and some of the decisions because nobody is perfect,” she said. “But there was no choice because I had to do what needed to be done. I had a lot of people depending on me. I really learned a lot from all of that.”

At the time of the shutdown, Smolinski, her husband and children were still living nearly a hundred miles apart.

“When school was shut down, that’s when it became very real for me,” she said. “My husband was homeschooling with the kids, so we just decided we had to get back together under one roof. Basically we were all at home in Alpena, and I was doing my best to run the city from there.”

In June, City Hall opened with restrictions, and as everyone was getting back into their daily routines, Smolinski said she began to think there may be something wrong with her health. She said she was very busy at the time, but finally went to the doctor and in July she was diagnosed with treatable breast cancer.

She is currently receiving appropriate treatment, while maintaining her job responsibilities.

“It definitely throws you for a loop and something that you don’t ever want to hear, but after I got over the initial shock of the news, I realized I’m meant to be in Alpena, I have an incredible support system here, and I realized quickly that was important to me was I needed to keep working and for the community to know that I am here, on the job and this is one of the things that is helping me fight this and motives me.”

As she faces ongoing challenges and plans for future ones, Smolinski said everything that she has experienced will make her a stronger person and better city leader. She said she isn’t one to walk away from things when times get tough.

“I’m always up to a challenge and it is motivating for me to be in here,” Smolinski said. “What am I supposed to do? Sit at home? No. That’s just not me.”

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