Retaining Talent on a Teeter Totter

Trading place for people: An interview with Bill Merrill

Editor’s note: HD, a.k.a. Dave Askins, editor of The Ann Arbor Chronicle, is also publisher of an online series of interviews on a teeter totter. Introductions to new Teeter Talks, like this one, also appear on The Chronicle’s website.

Bill Merrill

Bill Merrill

In the last few years, I’ve spent more time riding the hard wooden benches in the Ann Arbor city council chambers than I have straddling the teeter totter board. So last month I was glad to have a chance to take a ride with Bill Merrill, a software developer I met for the first time four or five years ago on a Ride Around Town (RAT). That was a monthly event that the Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition used to sponsor.

If Merrill had ever addressed the Ann Arbor city council during public commentary, then he could have reasonably begun by saying something like, “I came to Ann Arbor to attend school, but I stayed. And I’ve owned my house across from Allmendinger Park for almost a decade.”

This would, of course, be a standard gambit for public commentary – not just in Ann Arbor but probably in most every community – establishing your bona fides by appealing to longevity and rootedness in the community.

Home ownership is not just a way of saying to Ann Arbor city councilmembers that you’ve been here long enough to count. It’s also a way of saying, “I’m one of you.” All 11 members of the council are homeowners, even though less than half of Ann Arbor residents own the place they live.

In my time covering the city council for The Chronicle, Merrill has never addressed that body during the time allowed for public commentary. In that way he is like most other Ann Arbor homeowners – or for that matter, renters. Most of them, like Merrill, do not ever in their lifetime head down to city hall on the first or third Monday of the month to tell the city council what they think.

But the fact that he’s now sold his house and left Ann Arbor – even though he’s not leaving to take a job somewhere else or to follow a spouse, or for any other specific reason – makes Merrill different. It makes him different in a way that is likely not what the Pure Michigan campaign had in mind with its Ann Arbor slogan: “Ann Arbor does it up different.” That advertisement is supposed to make the “talent” want to come live here, not pick up and leave for no particular reason.

Merrill has more options than most people. He earns his livelihood working on software for a virtual cable operator Zattoo – a company with customers mostly in Germany and Switzerland, with the slogan “Internet TV Anywhere.” And it turns out that Merrill can do his job with Zattoo anywhere – including not in Ann Arbor. On why he decided to head out west for a while, Merrill had this to say on the totter:

The way I kind of think about it, it’s work anywhere to maintain your life, and make friends, and do things. I have been running the Ann Arbor game for a long time – which is meeting the new cool people who come to town, becoming friends with them, and then saying goodbye when they shoot out the other end to wherever they’re going. And every year you have a couple of really good friends who take off, and it hurts. And so I just want to try a different game. I also want to try living in a big city. Secondarily, I’m excited to try living without a car. …

I’m going to go live in places where my friends are and see what they are like and see if I get tired of living out of a couple of bags. I imagine eventually I will settle down somewhere. So my plan right now is in Seattle, then San Francisco, then I don’t know what is next.

From the point of view of “economic development,” Merrill probably still counts as a success story – because Ann Arbor managed to retain him for around a decade, instead of losing him immediately after graduation.

Whether a guy like Merrill stays or leaves Ann Arbor ultimately isn’t up to other folks  – like me, for example – who’ll likely serve out their productive lives here. But I think we’d probably “do it up” better if we measured success not by how long people like Bill Merrill choose to stay, but by how open we are to hearing their thoughts while they’re here – whether that’s a short time or forever.

I’d like to hear someone introduce their remarks to the city council by saying, “Hello, I live here now, and that’s all that matters.”

For more details on Merrill’s television-watching habits, smartphone replacement strategy, and transit preferences, read Merrill’s complete Talk.

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  1. By Patti Smith
    November 27, 2012 at 11:52 am | permalink

    I am getting misty eyed as I met both of you on the RATs (I miss those!). Bill is and was my friend so I am definitely sad to see him go. On his website, my friend, Mark Maynard, does exit interviews with people leaving Ypsi but also sometimes “welcome” interviews with people who are moving to the area. I like to hear those stories too & I’m happy to see that you plan to stay here for the long haul, Dave. (I do too but it all depends on what Snyder does to public education; if it goes, so do I).

  2. November 27, 2012 at 12:16 pm | permalink

    So are you going to do a post on your train trip to Detroit? (This is from the Teeter Talk.)

    Just to note – if you had actually stopped in Ypsilanti, you’d have added 15 min to your train trip to Detroit. That’s the problem with rail as a short-distance commuter travel.

  3. By c bultman
    November 27, 2012 at 1:45 pm | permalink

    ”… if we measured success not by how long people like Bill Merrill choose to stay, but by how open we are to hearing their thoughts while they’re here – whether that’s a short time or forever.”

    I’d like to hear someone introduce their remarks to the city council by saying, “Hello, I live here now, and that’s all that matters.”


    I would like to add to your above remarks, if you would indulge me, and say that if you really want to ‘do it up better’ then you might also allow yourselves to be open to hearing the thoughts of those who do not live there. As you know, I don’t live within the boundaries of the City of Ann Arbor which was just an accident of the real estate world when we bought our house. I did not have it as an agenda item, at that time, that my family had to live within the city limits. We looked at houses within the city and beyond, but none outside of the area that is perceived as Ann Arbor (what you would see as one mass from a plane). So while I can get to downtown on my bike faster than some who do live within the city limits, I don’t live there.

    Nevertheless, I am as committed to the city as anyone else and have donated lots of my time and money trying to make the city a better place. I have also volunteered my time and expertise to work on certain committees in the city and have been passed over because, “I have no skin in the game.”

    I believe it to be a sign of wisdom to recognize good ideas from bad, regardless of the source or the bona fides, and I work very hard to keep my biases with respect to this in check.

    I also believe strongly that focusing on political boundaries can be quite superficial; the physical boundaries matter more. Look at it this way, if AA City vanished, taking everything with it, would all those people still want to live in Pittsfield… or Scio?

  4. November 28, 2012 at 12:12 pm | permalink

    Here’s hoping Bill gets sick of those 2 bags and comes back to A2 quickly. On a different thought… I’m wondering if I’m the fattest guy to sit on that totter. Big testament for the quality of the seat. Pun intended. Ok… back to lurking mode.

  5. November 28, 2012 at 5:09 pm | permalink

    “And every year you have a couple of really good friends who take off, and it hurts.”

    Wow, that resonates. Like Bill I’ve avoided big cities until now because the lifestyle of smaller cities is more appealing to me. And like Bill I’m a virtual worker who could be anywhere. My bet was that the rise of net-mediated work would enable smaller cities to attract and retain more “creative class” action than was formerly possible. So far, from what I can see in various places, that isn’t happening to the degree I’d hoped.

  6. November 29, 2012 at 5:40 pm | permalink

    Re: The idea that stopping in Ypsi would add 15 minutes to the train trip to Detroit.

    Asking around with city transportation program manager and SEMCOG, which is working on the planning for commuter rail, a couple of salient points emerged. First, Ypsi would definitely be a stop in the planning that’s currently taking place. Second, the relevant time intervals to estimate stop times are: deceleration, dwell time, and acceleration. For planning purposes, they’re using a time of 5 minutes to ballpark the total of the three.

  7. November 29, 2012 at 6:09 pm | permalink

    Re (6) yes, I was just guessing but I think 5 minutes is too short, if there are any number of passengers. I base this on my prior experience as a train commuter. I’d also want to know how they could schedule a train that would both take Ann Arbor commuters into Detroit and bring Ypsilanti commuters into Ann Arbor at the start of the workday.

    I know that Ypsilanti is a designated commuter train stop. Assuming that the commuter train ever starts up, there are still questions about the location and operational support for a stop there. A recent story on a different online publication indicated that a new platform would have to be built, since the old depot probably will not be suitable.

  8. By Tom Brandt
    November 30, 2012 at 8:24 am | permalink

    Re. (2), (6), even if the time added is 15 minutes, is that such a big deal? I imagine, that depending on where you are going in Detroit, it would still be faster than driving and parking.

    A friend used to live in the Chicago ‘burbs and take the train to the Loop where he worked. He told me that you could always the train commuters from the car commuters. The train commuters were relaxed coming into the office, the car commuters were on the verge of homicidal after dealing with traffic on the Dan Ryan Expwy and surface streets.

  9. By Tom Brandt
    November 30, 2012 at 8:25 am | permalink

    In my comment above, I meant to reference (2) and (7), not (6).

  10. November 30, 2012 at 9:10 am | permalink

    Yes, train commuting is great if it can be made to work. I commuted via Amtrak between the San Diego and Los Angeles area for nearly 10 years. This consumed nearly a third of my salary but enabled me to skip much of the incredibly difficult freeways commute. Not all – the train didn’t go to my destination, so I had to keep a car on both ends and still had a 35-minute drive on the work end. But I was able to use time on the train as part of my work day (grading).

    My comment was based on the point that the proposed commuter train would add both Ypsilanti and Detroit Metro as stops. Each stop adds minutes to a commute. Some runs of the train stopped at San Clemente and this lengthened the trip noticeably. Even a relatively easy train commute, if it is over an hour (I haven’t seen projected time courses for this Detroit-AA train lately) can become a problem, especially if you have to drive or find other transportation on the other end. We have a very large metropolitan area in SE Michigan and a person commuting to Southfield or Livonia, for example, would have to find transport from the train stops to their workplace, just as I did. A Dearborn or downtown Detroit commuter might do well.

    BTW, I’m not that familiar with the Chicago system, but I think that system has its own dedicated infrastructure. It is rather different from a system shared with other trains.

  11. November 30, 2012 at 4:53 pm | permalink

    You say that “I’d like to hear someone introduce their remarks to the city council by saying, ‘Hello, I live here now, and that’s all that matters.’”

    Really? Should City Council develop public policy based on the opinions of those who have few or even transient ties to the town?

    So some college students decide that Ann Arbor should not prohibit porch couches because that suits their interest while living here. But we remain in town long enough to see a fatality related to a burning porch couch.

    Or perhaps, some utopian planners come to town and stay just long enough to turn our classic mid-western downtown into some sort of high density, high rise urban center. And the long term residents get to stay and pay for the expensive underground parking (etc.) and watch the various foreclosures on condo and student housing projects.

    I don’t know Bill Merrill, but I’m sure he is a wonderful person. He is not leaving because this town lacks something that he has found elsewhere. He is leaving because he feels no ties to the community and he plans to try out a series of other cities in search of something that might anchor him. Good for him.

    Those of us who have settled here, by chance or by choice, have established ties to the community that should give us the basis for making long term public policy choices. We will be here to pay the bills and enjoy the fruits of our civic engagement.

  12. December 1, 2012 at 1:24 am | permalink


    Yes, City Council should attend to the interests both of long-term residents of the city and to the interests of the substantial part of the population that only lives here for 2-5 years before leaving. To do otherwise is to pretend that this is not a college town.

  13. December 1, 2012 at 11:20 am | permalink

    I started to comment on the student thing and then realized it has all mostly been said in the comments on an old post of mine about Arbor Update’s passing. [link] Comments by Vielmetti, Eaton, Murph, Steve Bean and others! Amusingly, this post has been one of my all-time hits, mostly because searches on “porch couch” continue.

  14. December 1, 2012 at 1:00 pm | permalink

    Oh, I miss Arbor Update, too! (I do not miss ArborBlagh).

  15. December 5, 2012 at 3:05 pm | permalink

    EdV’s got it — just because many of the current students will move away doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider their voices and interests. Ann Arbor (and Ypsi) will always have a demographic standing wave of thousands of college students living in town. What an individual student does after graduation is pretty unimportant, unless you assume that UMich will close up shop as soon as all of its current students have degrees.

    We don’t (or shouldn’t) make public policy for individuals, after all: we make it for communities. A community that has a significant number of students or renters (or low-income residents, or non-English speakers, or…) shouldn’t discount those citizens’ interests just because they haven’t owned a home for ten years, or otherwise don’t meet our idea of “premium” citizens.

    Of course, as Vivienne notes, I’ve held forth on this before, once or twice. :)

  16. December 5, 2012 at 3:34 pm | permalink

    Regarding train commuting: here’s one of my favorite maps of the last little while is this from Reddit, of Chicago’s El and Metra systems laid out, to scale, over metro Detroit:


    Note the couple lines out to A2/Ypsi — A2 is geographically approximate to Joliet, IL. Those are Metra, which does run on tracks shared with freight (many of the lines are named things like “Union Pacific-North”) as well as Amtrak, and does face rail congestion issues sometimes. It looks like the “Heritage Corridor” has 4-5 intermediate stops between Joliet and Union Station, and takes about 1 hr 5 mins end to end. The Greater Chicago and Detroit areas aren’t completely analogous, but it’s not a terrible comparison.

    Last time estimates I saw for A2-Detroit commuter were more like 50 mins, with new Ypsi and DTW transfer stops, which is pretty close to what it takes to drive just from downtown Ypsi to downtown Detroit during peak hours. At 50 cents a mile, plus the time cost of my attention, plus parking, getting behind the wheel to drive back and forth to Detroit for a meeting costs me close to $100 every time I do it. That’s clearly the upper end of the cost estimate, but if a commuter rail ticket cost me $6-10, it’d be a clear win, even if I needed a transfer on the Detroit end.

    As far as your concerns in (7), Vivienne — I’m not sure why number of passengers would delay the train: I don’t think any commuter system I’ve been on works like an AATA bus, sitting there until everybody passes the farebox one by one. Can you clarify? And, the way you schedule a train that takes both Ann Arbor commuters to Detroit (or Dearborn, or Ypsi) and also brings commuters into Ann Arbor…is to have trains start at both ends and pass partway along. (The NS tracks are not double-tracked within Ann Arbor, but a large chuck of the route between Ypsi and Dearborn is double-tracked, and the HSR-funded work in Dearborn includes filling in some gaps in the double-trackage.)

  17. December 5, 2012 at 5:25 pm | permalink

    Murph, It would indeed be a bargain if commuter rail trips were only $6-10. Do you know what projected fares are for that hypothetical line? As I recall, I paid about $30 each way, with a 10-ride discount book. (That was in the 70s and 80s.) The Detroit-Ann Arbor line is currently not funded, but if it gets going will need a good proportion of its costs paid at the farebox.

    If you have any substantial number of passengers getting on, it simply takes time for them all to mount the steps and get settled. Depends on a lot of things, including how many doors are opened. Those old cars they are refurbishing do have steps, instead of grade-level boarding. The model for fare collection could matter too. Tickets can be collected after passengers are seated but if people are buying tickets on board it could complicate things. I have no idea how many of those logistics have even been discussed.

  18. By Jack Eaton
    December 5, 2012 at 5:27 pm | permalink

    Re (12) and (15) Ed and Murph, I didn’t understand the article to say that Bill Merrill was a student. I thought Dave’s statement “I live here now, and that’s all that matters.” referred to a person’s general commitment to the community. The interview seemed to imply that there is something wrong with, or lacking about, Ann Arbor and that is a reason folks like Merrill leave. My thought is that if those of us with strong connections to the community do our best to maintain what is good and unique about our town it will attract folks who like that small town – culturally vibrant thing.

    As far as including students in our political discourse, I wholeheartedly agree. As I have pointed out elsewhere, I worked to elect a UM student to the City Council in 2009. My neighborhood supported him in greater percentages and in greater numbers than did the student precincts. I wish students were more involved in our local politics.

  19. By Steve Bean
    December 5, 2012 at 5:51 pm | permalink

    @15: You’re conflating communities with groups, somewhat there, Murph.

    “We don’t…” Who is “we”? “We shouldn’t…” Why not? If those individuals (groups?) are part of the community, they’ll speak for themselves, right? Are you saying the majority shouldn’t rule?

    Lots of (mostly rhetorical, partly intellectually interesting) questions that I actually don’t really care about the answers to because of the overarching influence of money on all such things, which makes them mostly moot.

    @16: “getting behind the wheel to drive back and forth to Detroit for a meeting costs me close to $100 every time I do it.”

    I’m reading The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain, by Daniel Gardner, which references the relative mortality risk of driving versus flying (much lower). Anyone know what it is in relative terms for rail transport (not to mention the subsequent localized decrease, if any, due to fewer cars on local expressways)? It’s a valid part of the investment calculus. Odd that it hasn’t been discussed. But then, we’re (AA, SE MI, USA) at a mostly feeling level in our public policy development.

  20. By Jack Eaton
    December 5, 2012 at 5:57 pm | permalink

    Re (16) I like your comparison of Detroit/Ann Arbor to Chicago/Joliet. In Illinois, which of those two communities leads the effort on commuter rail? Some of us who question the Ann Arbor effort to start a commuter rail service believe that the tail (Ann Arbor) should not try to wag the dog (Detroit). Regional transit should be a collective effort or should be led by the largest community in the region.

    An article in Crains Detroit Business noted that a study indicated that Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter rail would cost about $70 per ride to provide. [link]
    So your dream price of $10 per ticket would require a huge subsidy. Even with Vivienne’s $30 ticket, the passenger would be paying less than half of the cost.

    Ann Arbor should not be spending its local transit funds for what needs to be a regional plan. The Governor’s regional transit plan seems to acknowledge the high price of trains by focusing instead on Bus Rapid Transit for commuter service. Time will tell if we ever will be able to identify a funding mechanism for high priced rail service.