A2 COVID-19: Mike Martin

May 31, 2020 | A2 COVID-19

Mike Martin is the president of First Martin Corporation, a real estate development company that has been based in Ann Arbor for over fifty years. Parts of this video have poor sound due to internet connection problems. (The pandemic forces us all to depend on technology in a way we didn’t previously!) Mike has a unique window into the impact the pandemic has had on our business community and shares his observations. He encourages local leaders to recognize these unprecedented times, consider new and unprecedented strategies moving forward.

This is part of a series of interviews with Ann Arbor residents, talking about personal experiences adjusting to (and adapting during) the COVID-19 crisis. This interview was conducted remotely via the ZOOM application. I appear in this video as “Mrs. Nelson” – we talked over the ZOOM account that I use primarily with my preschool class. Interviewed May 28, 2020

Today I’m talking to Mike Martin. I want to thank you for talking to me today!

Thanks for having me on, I appreciate it!

The first big question is: what kind of adjustments or changes have you had to make in your lifestyle since this pandemic has happened?

I think, similar to a lot of other folks in kind of my demographic set, the changes were kind of two-fold. One was family side of things and second was the business side. 

Family, it was a big change. We have three school age kids so we have school, after-school activities, booked kind of non-stop. Really, having stopped all those activities and then kind of re-focus, kind of, their education in our home which was very challenging. I’m certainly forever grateful to my wife for her leading those efforts. They’re ongoing and fingers crossed we’ll be in school this fall.

From a business side, it was really challenging. Our business was doing very well and a lot of people we lease to were also doing very well. The business world kind of came to a complete stop. There were folks whose businesses really relied on traffic, whether it be restaurants or fitness facilities or dental facilities, where their businesses immediately stopped, their revenue stream stopped. It had nothing to do with them as business people but it had to do with the pandemic. We quickly went from being a kind of start-up and growth engine – trying to help people (and certainly our own business) – to kind of like almost a shut-down business.

That’s certainly when the government programs came out: the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] and some of those other things. We try to put ourselves in the position to be a resource for people that we do business with. Those were some of the big changes that occurred pretty quickly.

So are you mostly working from home or are you at your office now?

You know, I think one of the things that I was very lucky in: we were able to have all of our folks work from home, which meant that our office was available for me to come into. For my wife and I, [we are] keeping some of those rhythms of me leaving (which I think she probably liked as well!). I was able to come down and work out of my home but still in kind of that shelter-in-home place.

Talking about changing habits, I drove to work (which is not far from my house) for many years and I took the opportunity during this time – for actually the first three weeks – I walked and then I started to ride a bike. It was great from a mental health (and everything else) perspective to have that time out of the house but not in the office to just observe what was going on in Ann Arbor. I really made a point to tour neighborhoods and walk down Main Street and really see what was going on. Funneling some of those observations to you folks on Council and trying to understand exactly what was going on.

All of us are dealing with some of the same problems, which are doing the tasks that we need to do that force us to leave our house, even if we are trying our best to stay in our house. What kind of routines or precautions are you taking with those daily activities that we can’t avoid, like going to the grocery store or going shopping for things we need?

My wife and I, we’re very conscious, I think (as a family) of the shelter in place order and doing the best that we could to limit our interactions with anyone outside of our home. I was not… it wasn’t a great force that I put [but] I kind of told her (and it was more common, my wife going to the store), “hey if you’re buying one, buy a second one.” It was the idea of creating this stockpile at home. So actually going into this, before the state was shut down, we had a pretty good stockpile of basic needs for our family. Outside of that, we’ve really been able to limit going to the grocery store.

There’s a lot of great local businesses that are doing things… [For example], Thrive (the juice company) were doing produce boxes… So we really try to access some of those things that would support local businesses and then limit our patterns outside the home. We did that and obviously the PPE items: carrying masks, lots of hand sanitizer, washing hands, those sorts of things.

Since we have limited so much of our interactions – we’re looking at each other on screens, but our face-to-face interactions are so much more limited now – how are you overcoming any feelings of being so isolated or having your world become so small? You’re looking at the same people kind of all the time, or looking at the same walls all the time.

It’s a great question and a great observation. One of the things we were able to do… we have a little area outside of our house that is adjacent to the street and sidewalk (the back yard is kind of the side yard). Our street has a ton of folks that won’t go out but basically walk the dogs, take walks to the park, that sort of thing. My wife and I would sit out there a lot of evenings and we have a lot of conversations like you’re talking about (like by accident) that used to last for maybe thirty seconds that ended up lasting for thirty minutes because everybody was – like you said – kind of sick of just looking at each other and talking to each other.

If you want to look for silver linings in this, it’s that we had a lot of conversations with neighbors (that we didn’t talk to that in depth) a lot more in depth because I think that folks… they were sick of talking to each other, their small circle. It was really nice to have some of those interactions. That was something that we did which I think helped us.

Are you or your family taking any special precautions when you go outdoors?

I think that practicing the social distancing has really kind of been key. I think everyone has been very cognizant of trying to keep that separation. Again, I’ve got hand sanitizer and face masks in pockets, in cars, anything almost. We’re really just trying to be conscious of almost “leave no trace” lifestyle with respect to COVID, right? It’s an outdoor concept that you can really kind of bring in to try to be mindful of your presence and your personal protection or lack of it.

So there has been considerable political talk about the restrictions of things being closed, people being urged to stay home. Would you have any thoughts or comments about (or to) people who are saying, “We’re just sick of this, we’re sick of having altered our lives this much” and “it’s time for us to just go back, it’s really not that big of a deal, let’s just go back to normal”?

I think that that is an incredibly difficult question that you pose, because… I’m sure everyone wants to decide with science and medicine and best practices and policies with respect to navigating these waters. At the same point in time, I think one of the things that I’ve had exposure to here (that maybe other folks don’t) is just the breadth and scale of the human consequences this pandemic’s had.

We own a hotel here downtown and we have a restaurant here. [I’ve seen] the number of folks that have been laid off and had financial impacts to their lives. And the government’s done the best they can to try to backstop that and allow people the time to stay home and to stay safe and to flatten the curve and do all those things. But as I can understand, [to] the folks that are starting to agitate, I guess my message would be that I would rather pay the price now, personally, with respect to limiting my behavior and ask others to, too, so that in the long run we can get back to something that is closer to normal [rather] than just casting all medical recommendations aside and just trying to restart things. I don’t see that being the right course forward, but I sympathize with folks that are at wit’s end.

I see that there are folks that really are having a hard time and are struggling with this. So… tough question.

Is there anything else that I didn’t ask you about that you think is worth talking about?

No, I guess the only thing that I would say is as a casual observer of – and somebody who’s certainly vested and interested in – what you do in your every-other-Monday job (and I know it’s not just every other Monday but every day, interacting with folks that are in your ward and people in the city). I would just encourage – and I’ve reached out to various members on Council and the Mayor, and I think everyone’s been incredibly receptive, but I would just continue to encourage – you folks to understand that it isn’t (I think everyone’s there but), it’s certainly not business as usual, and being flexible and open and understanding and pragmatic as much as possible right now and not say “Hey, this is how we did something, this is what’s in our scripture.”

Right now is the time to see what’s really going on out there in the world and either rapidly or quickly adopting policies to deal with challenges head on in a pro-active way that helps as many people as we possibly can. It really is, the need is… I think the comeback here is not going to be measured in terms of weeks and months, it’s really going to be years. We’re doing the best that we can to do our part for the community. I would just ask that everybody on Council do the same thing. I appreciate all your time and effort in doing so, so thank you.

I think every profession is having to look hard at strategies moving forward and we’re all having to think about things in a different way. 

A word we’ve been using a lot around here is DYNAMIC. It’s a very dynamic situation.

Again, I appreciate you having me on. 

Alright. Thanks so much for talking to me today!