“Perception” Task Force Targets City’s Rep

Paul Bass PhotoA little-known “perception” committee has dispatched the mayor’s press office to plant feel-good stories in the media as part of a broader new effort to counter suburbanites’ negative images of crime-ridden New Haven.

That is one of a host of recommendations—from changing lighting to installing parking-style meters for homeless donations— coming out of the New Haven Perception Study Task Force. The task force has begun meeting over the past six months to discuss how to make the city more attractive to visitors.

Drawing on data collected by research firms about Connecticut residents’ perceptions of downtown, the task force has been talking about panhandling, noise pollution, and media coverage of the city.

NEW HAVEN PERCEPTIONS STUDY 2014The task force meets approximately once a month to discuss the results of studies about what people think about downtown New Haven.  The most recent study surveyed 820 people who live within a 50-mile radius of New Haven, 35 percent of whom live in New Haven County. The task force is co-chaired by Mayor Toni Harp and Bruce Alexander, Yale’s vice president for New Haven and state affairs and campus development. Mayoral spokesperson Laurence Grotheer said that while the perception study motivated the formation of the task force, the group doesn’t limit itself to issues raised by the study.

The task force is new; the studies are not. According to documents reviewed by the Independent, the first perception study was commissioned in 1998 by the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce. Later studies in 2002, 2005, 2012, and 2014 were commissioned by Market New Haven, a business advocacy group.

Paul Bass PhotoAt the first meeting of the task force on June 10, Grotheer was assigned to “develop a stable of positive City focused stories to funnel to media to discourage sensational crime stories,” according to a list of action items issued after that meeting. Grotheer and Economic Development Administrator Matthew Nemerson (pictured) were also charged to “develop a better crime communication plan to communicate that New Haven crime is down,” according to the action items from that meeting.

Part of this plan went into practice at the end of September: Mayor Toni Harp held a press conference to present data showing a decrease in crime from 2011 to 2014 – specifically, in shots fired, non-fatal shooting victims, and homicides. (See our story here.) Despite these statistics, the facts have not changed the perception of New Haven’s crime significantly over the past two years, according to reports made to the committee.

“There is an internal bias in a downsized media to do one big negative story every Monday,” Nemerson said in an interview. So, a delegation from the task force, which included Mayor Harp, city staff, and Chamber president Tony Rescigno, met with the publisher of the New Haven Register, Kevin Corrado.

“We wanted to get his buy-in that the perception of the city is important,” Rescigno said in an interview. “How they write stories about the city is important.”

Rescigno said that the task force is not trying to “manage the news.” Rather, he said, it wants to get everybody on board with this idea: “If we make this a better place, more people are going to want to come here.”

In an email, Corrado declined to comment on the specific items discussed at the meeting. “We are always open to feedback and discussion from officials and other residents,” he wrote. “It helps inform our news coverage of New Haven and other communities.”

Records of a later task force meeting on Sept. 3 indicated that media coverage is “steady and positive.” There are “no glaring red flags.”

Decades Of Studies

Thomas MacMillan PhotoNew Haven has been working to improve its content and its image for the past few decades.

“Back in the ‘90s … there was a lot of damage done to the New Haven brand,” Nemerson said. Developer Joel Schiavone’s company, which owned and had renovated buildings on College Street and Chapel Street, went bankrupt. It was the depths of a recession that hit New Haven particularly hard. “There was a sense of free fall,” Nemerson said.

Alexander (pictured) said that Schiavone’s bankruptcy caused lenders that were backing him to also go bankrupt. The FDIC, which was insuring the banks, ended up owning Schiavone’s property. Many downtown properties were owned by the federal government instead of by developers.

“Suddenly we had this situation of a zombie downtown,” Nemerson said.

The FDIC was going to auction off the properties piecemeal. Then-Mayor John DeStefano didn’t like the idea.

So DeStefano approached Yale and asked if it would consider purchasing the property. Yale asked Alexander to negotiate the deal with the FDIC on behalf of the university. Alexander agreed.

But what would Yale do with the property?

“The perception study was really done as an overture to Yale, more than anybody else, and other developers, to say, ‘Let’s find out what’s wrong with New Haven from the perception of our customers,’” Nemerson said.

The first study was conducted in 1998 for the Chamber. Nemerson, then-president of the Chamber, made a presentation about the results in September of that year. According to the presentation, a minority of respondents—35 percent—had a favorable view of New Haven. (The study surveyed residents of 21 towns in Greater New Haven and in the Naugatuck Valley.)

“It was always apparent that New Haven had an image problem,” said Barbara Lamb, who worked in the city at the time and later served as the director of cultural affairs. Civic leaders saw two ways to fix the problem: Change how people think about the city, which would theoretically bring them here; or bring more people here and give them a good experience, which would give them a good impression of the city. Lamb said that the city didn’t know which route to go down.

“It was a sort of chicken-and-egg thing,” Lamb said.

So, the city put out a request for proposals find marketing firms to help answer this question. The city chose Sandy Hillman Communications, a Baltimore-based public relations and marketing company. The firm was hired in 1999 and produced a plan in 2000, Lamb said.

Lamb said that one of the firm’s conclusions was that New Haven should work on changing peoples’ behaviors and perceptions at the same time. In order to do this, they needed an entity completely dedicated to marketing the city. In 2000, Market New Haven was born.

Lamb served as the director of Market New Haven in 2002, and then handed off the job to Anne Worcester, who is currently Market New Haven’s chief marketing officer and the tournament director of the Connecticut Open.

Worcester said that the mission of Market New Haven “is to enhance the positive image of New Haven, to tell the story of its renaissance, and to ensure the prosperity of residents, of local businesses, and the city itself.”

Market New Haven is a public-private partnership backed by the city, Yale, and the New Haven business community. The three founding members were Alexander, former Mayor John DeStefano, and the late former president of the now-defunct New Haven Savings Bank, Charles Terrell. Alexander now chairs the board.

Into The Data

The first perception study, The Region’s View of New Haven, was conducted in 1998 for the Chamber, by the Quinnipiac University Poll. According to that presentation, the survey included 1,054 telephone interviews with residents of 21 towns in Greater New Haven and in the Naugatuck Valley. Respondents were asked about how favorable they felt toward New Haven and other surrounding cities, as well as what they liked most and least about the city. In 1998, 35 percent of respondents were favorable toward New Haven; 28 percent were unfavorable, 34 percent had mixed opinions, and 2 percent didn’t know.

New Haven came up ahead of Hartford and Bridgeport in terms of favorability. But it fell behind Stamford, Providence, Baltimore, New York, and Boston. Respondents liked the city’s culture, Yale, and food, while they disliked the city’s crime, drugs, roads, and traffic.

Nemerson said that the general trends of the results have not changed.

“People love New Haven as a destination for eating, for culture, for arts, for architecture,” Nemerson said. “And they dislike New Haven as a place to park, to walk where they haven’t been before, and to venture too far off the well-lit, comfortable places that they know well. They perceive that there’s something they don’t understand around the next corner.”

Differences in the surveys from year-to-year make comparing the exact numbers difficult. Each survey was conducted by a different research company. While the 1998 study drew responses from residents close to New Haven, later studies expanded their reach. Different studies asked slightly different questions. But there are still some changes that can be identified, especially in comparing the 2012 and 2014 studies.

From 2012 to 2014, the overall perception of New Haven improved, according to a May 1 presentation made by Target Research Group, the firm that conducted the study, to Market New Haven. In 2014, 29 percent of respondents said that, overall, downtown New Haven was “excellent” or “very good,” compared with 22 percent of respondents in 2012. This different was statistically significant, according to the presentation. Meanwhile, the percentage of residents who perceived downtown to be “fair” or “poor” decreased by 1 percentage point, from 30 percent to 29 percent, over the same two years. (This difference was not statistically significant.)

NEW HAVEN PERCEPTIONS STUDY 2014The aspects of New Haven that most respondents thought were excellent or very good have changed little over the past two years. In 2014, 67 percent of respondents praised “pizza restaurants” (up from 63 percent in 2012 – not a statistically significant difference). The same percentage gave high marks in 2014 to “restaurants” (up from 58 percent in 2012, which is a statistically significant difference). These were the two highest-ranking categories. Next came “cultural activities,” and then “bars/nightclubs/lounges,” in both years.

NEW HAVEN PERCEPTIONS STUDY 2014On the other end of the spectrum, respondents had negative perceptions of issues relating to crimes and cars. In 2014, 77 percent of respondents characterized the “crime rate” as fair or poor (up from 76 percent in 2012 – not a statistically significant difference). “Traffic within the city” came next on the list, with 64 percent of respondents giving it a negative rating in 2014 (up from 59 percent in 2012 – this time, a statistically significant difference). “Cost of parking,” “personal safety,” and “parking options” came next, with disapproval ratings of 61 percent, 60 percent, and 59 percent in 2014, respectively.

Nemerson said that New Haven might actually be better off than the numbers indicate. He argued that there are two different kinds of people in Connecticut – people who like cities, and people who don’t like cities.

“For all these years we kept finding these general numbers of people who thought the city was both a great place to eat and to live and to visit, but also they thought it was dangerous, dirty, and hard to get around,” Nemerson said. “People were really schizophrenic.”

So, he said, perhaps there are multiple groups of people. Currently, their opinions are mixed together in the perception studies. Nemerson said that future studies will try to separate out these groups of people.

Task Force Created

Before Toni Harp took office as mayor this January, Market New Haven received and reviewed the results of the surveys. Bruno Baggetta, marketing director for Market New Haven, said that the surveys provided an “internal road map” for the organization.

Worcester (pictured) said that the information gathered in the surveys was shared with relevant departments and organizations.

“Those organizations took it upon themselves to realize improvement in those areas,” Worcester said.

Things changed when Harp took office. Harp is also on the board of Market New Haven. At a board meeting where the survey was discussed, Harp concluded that many of the issues raised by the survey required collaboration among different city departments, Nemerson said. So she formed a special task force to address issues raised by the survey.

The task force has 19 members and has met four times so far – in June, July, September, and October. The first meeting took place at the office of New Haven and State Affairs. The other three meetings were at City Hall.

Grotheer said that the task force meetings are not open to the public because it is a “special task force” as opposed to a “public entity.”

Participants at these meetings discuss subjects ranging from panhandling to parking garage promotions. Some of their discussions have moved into the public sphere.

For example, Doug Hausladen’s plan to install parking meters that would collect change for community services and discourage panhandling (our story here) came out of this task force, and addressed a problem identified in the perception study, Baggetta said.

In the 2014 survey, 46 percent of respondents said that the “presence of panhandling” is fair or poor.

The task force is also addressing issues relating to parking. In the 2014 study, 61 percent of respondents said that the “cost of parking” was fair or poor, and 59 percent of respondents gave “parking options” a similar negative rating.

David Panagore, director of Park New Haven, a quasi-public authority that manages New Haven’s parking garages and surface lots, said that his agency had been working to improve parking in New Haven for years. Panagore said that before 2014, his actions had been shaped by previous perception studies. Just before the task force started meeting, Panagore changed the management structure of parking facilities so that managers were assigned based on location, not time (our story here).

When the task force came along, Panagore said, it directed him to work on promoting the parking garages. As a result, Park New Haven rolled out a voucher program for diners at select restaurants (more information on Park New Haven’s website here). Panagore looked into options for offering vouchers to shoppers, but realized it was easier to offer free Saturday daytime parking at the Crown Street garage (our story here). Additionally, Panagore is putting some of the garage security staff into small “gator” vehicles - small off-street vehicles that allow the security staff to move more quickly around the garage and be a more visible presence. This program should be up and running by Thanksgiving, he said.

City Chief Administrative Officer Mike Carter is taking charge of addressing noise pollution and lighting. Carter is overseeing a project to replace some city streetlights with LEDs, and to work with UI to fix broken lights. This directly arose from the results of the perception study in areas of safety, Carter said.

The 2014 study reported 60 percent of respondents think “personal safety” is fair or poor, while 8 percent think it is very good or excellent.

Discussions about noise pollution came up at the task force meetings, but didn’t directly arise from the perception study, Carter said. He is currently working with American Medical Response and the police and fire departments to see what can be done to reduce noise coming from ambulances in the city, he said.

Other issues that the task force is addressing don’t come directly from the perception study, Baggetta said. For example, the task force discussed how to make it possible for businesses to place advertisements in bus shelters. Baggetta said this came up “organically” in conversation and was not directly linked to the perception study.

The task force is also looking into creating a “Culture Week,” which would be similar to the popular “Restaurant Week” but focus on New Haven’s cultural offerings, such as the museums and art galleries, Baggetta said. This idea is also unrelated to the perception study.

As of press time, the next meeting has not yet been scheduled, Baggetta said.

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posted by: robn on November 10, 2014  5:05pm

How about teaching and preaching for pedestrian/cyclist/driver civility on roads and sidewalks? A lack of heightened danger would go a long way towards perception.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on November 10, 2014  6:20pm

Again snake-Oil being sold.People are leaving this state.Did not the Property tax go up in New Haven.

posted by: Noteworthy on November 10, 2014  7:27pm

New Haven’s rep is earned, not perceived and it’s been going on for many years. The premise of this task force is that if you plant good positive stories, lean on the media to be compliant, hide the task force deliberations and conversations behind a veil of secrecy, you’ll be able to dupe non-residents into living, dining and working in New Haven. All that’s missing is Baghdad Bob.

I look forward to more good news - what’s next? We have no failing schools and our budget is balanced.

posted by: Mikelive on November 10, 2014  9:05pm

I could not vote on the poll, the schools (and teachers) do not belong on the same line as crime and lack of enforcement of crime. The schools will never do well until we stop encouraging folks to have babies and live on the dole. Crime could be cut in half if we had more police and a judicial system that cared about hard working citizens more than jail overcrowding.

Three year crime drop eh? I dont buy into that.

posted by: JustAnotherTaxPayer on November 10, 2014  9:31pm

The “problem” is not imagined. People are murdered on the streets of New Haven with a consistent regularity. They are also shot and fortunately survive. They are also assaulted and robbed. People are attacked in their own homes from predators that “invade” what should be the one place where a person should be safe. Auto’s are broken into, stolen, and carjacked. (few people know that it is New Haven where carjacking, the word was born, during a rash of them in the fall of 1990).

And it has continued, unabated since 1990. Accurate crime statistics have been modified, news stories suppressed, press conferences given, crime fighting campaigns named, trotted out, put in place, and fail.

Imagine New Haven with a very real and dramatic change in the murders, shootings, rapes, assaults, robberies, home invasions, car thefts. New Haven would become a mecca. Not just for people to come to the theater, museums, movie theater, shopping, dining, BUT for investor’s. For folks who want to live in a great city, with one of the world’s most famous intitutions of higher education. Anyone who now owns real estate or a business here would find the financial success that one expects from these types of standard speculation. Sounds impossible. No, it describes Cambridge Mass. Too Bad Yale’s planners at the Business and Management School (yes that new airline terminal building on Whitney Av, across from the Peabody Museum) are not as skilled and in touch with their community, as Harvard is. What a shame.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on November 11, 2014  12:12am

I do not trust this data.If they do it here.How do we know it is not being done here?

Crime Report Manipulation Is Common Among New York Police, Study Finds
Published: June 28, 2012


posted by: Ex-NHPD on November 11, 2014  12:57am

It took me a while to comment on this story; one of the longest NHI articles, with a lot to digest.  I had to re-read several times to make sure that I read what was written.

The NHPSTF can try to dress up the city by “funneling” positive stories, but until the reality of the city changes DRASTICALLY, the people who they interview will continue to know that where they live does not have an average of 6 people shot each month, with more than 1 dead each month, as New Haven does.

Those they interview also know they have fine restaurants in or near their homes that they can patronize; without high parking costs, a better chance of being a crime victim, and getting hassled for money handouts.

The real story here is the NHPSTF.  They meet at City Hall.  The Mayor is one of the co-Chairs. A V.P. of Yale is the other one. They give “Direction” to quasi-public agencies (Park New Haven).  A delegation from the NHPSTF (including the Mayor and City Staff) met with the publisher of the NHR to “get his buy-in..”. In the ensuing months, the NHPSTF reported, among themselves, that “media coverage is steady and positive” and “there are no glaring red flags.” Wow!

This should send chills up people’s spines.  It sure feels like the Mayor is trying to control the Free Press.  An interesting study would be of the NHR coverage of violent crime in New Haven, in the times before the NHPSTF met with the publisher and after the meeting. Any takers (NHI)?

Anyone else concerned that a 19 member “Star Chamber” is wielding this type of pressure and influence, to bury the story of New Haven?  I’m sure other inquiring minds would like to know who the 19 members are.  They might also want to be able to see the NHPSTF in action at one of their meetings, and see if they have a legitimate challenge to not being allowed to do so.

The NHPSTF sure sounds like a public entity to me.

posted by: Anderson Scooper on November 11, 2014  10:25am

“Perception”‘s biggest achievement must have been during Yale Graduation weekend in 2013, when a murder happened that Friday night, just one block from the Old Campus:

Somehow this wasn’t on the front page of the Sunday NH Register?

Whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know… (Penney Serra did plenty of damage to downtown New Haven.)

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on November 11, 2014  10:28am

“People love New Haven as a destination for eating, for culture, for arts, for architecture,” Nemerson said. “And they dislike New Haven as a place to park, to walk where they [haven’t] been before, and to venture too far off the well-lit, comfortable places that they know well. They perceive that there’s something they don’t understand around the next corner.”

That is the most elaborately fashioned bunch of euphemisms I’ve run into in a long time.  But it’s pretty clear what he actually means:  “Suburbanites are scared of New Haven because it’s full of poor people of color whose culture and behavior they find alien and scary, and they are convinced that if they cross the city line after dark they are going to be mugged.”

This despite the fact that the two most horrifying crimes in Connecticut in the last decade happened in Cheshire and Newtown, and were perpetrated by whites.

Oh well.  Good luck guys.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on November 11, 2014  11:35am

Trying to argue that New Haven’s crime hasn’t dropped over the last 20 years is like trying to argue that New Haven’s population hasn’t increased or that the grandlist hasn’t grown or that Downtown’s retail and food service markets have exploded.

It’s honestly that nonsensical. Are we also cooking our population statistics? Are all these new businesses just fronts and not legitimate. Below the surface is New Haven exactly the same as it was in 1990? C’mon people, I can’t take you seriously.

Between 1989 and 1991, New Haven averaged more than one shooting incident a day where someone was either injured by gunfire or killed. Now, it’s once a week - still not great, but it’s a massive difference.

Crown Street in 1983:

Today there is an antique furniture store, an architecture firm, bar, recording studio, pizza restaurant and apartments in these buildings.

Temple Street walkthrough in 1998:

Orange Street in 2000:

None of the storefronts are occupied, but walk down that street today and they’re all filled.

The Earth isn’t flat.

posted by: robn on November 11, 2014  12:18pm


I agree. Its never nice when people are shot or killed but statistically (and vibe), its not even close to the early 90’s.
We don’t have a perception problem as much as an attitude problem.  The pedestrian/cyclist/driver conflict I mentioned before is really just a symptom of New Haven’s problem of negativity and lack of civility.

posted by: FacChec on November 11, 2014  1:47pm

“The most recent study surveyed 820 people who live within a 50-mile radius of New Haven, 35 percent of whom live in New Haven County.

The problem is in the study, gauging the opinions of those who live outside the city and none of those opinions by New Haven residents.

What are we aliens?

This committee makes no effort to engage city residents in downtown life.

There are no restaurants minorities and other ethnics who dominate the city’s population wish to visit. There are no shows New Heavener’s would enjoy going to; there are no kid events, and very soon you will not be able to afford to park downtown.

Crime is not the issue downtown, crime is rampant in the central city, Yale and New Haven police try mightily to contain the crime to those areas.

When Yale closes its doors in May the downtown businesses might just as well go with them. In June the area is a ghost town for business. The main reason this is so is due to the slanted, bias views of the planners mentioned above, none are from the community.

The following is exactly what I mean…

“The task force is also looking into creating a “Culture Week,” which would be similar to the popular “Restaurant Week” but focus on New Haven’s cultural offerings, such as the museums and art galleries, Baggetta said. This idea is also unrelated to the perception study”.

Can’t you see it??

posted by: wendy1 on November 11, 2014  2:24pm

I agree with many above, the perception committee is Kafkaesque, and also an oxymoron.  This committee does not perceive that we live in a segregated ghetto with all the attendant problems.  What a waste of time and money.  They might as well be in the military.

And New Haven as a brand!!!????!!...you mean like Disneyland??

Looking forward to next elections.

posted by: wendy1 on November 11, 2014  2:31pm

What we really need is black reparations and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

posted by: RhyminTyman on November 11, 2014  4:01pm

Statistically speaking the late 80’s and early 90’s was one of the most crime ridden time span in American history. Crime has across the board came down. New Haven while still not there yet has become much safer. The shootings need to stop and the colleges need to address the rape crisis but over the past half decade New Haven has clearly been on the right path. The naysayers will still complain. The partially are correct. New Haven should be as safe of a city as Cambridge but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t acknowledge how far we come.

posted by: TheMadcap on November 11, 2014  4:10pm

Apparently the committee needs to be trying to change the perception of New Haven among New Haveners, not people in the suburbs, because damn some people don’t want to accept reality. All I can imagine is some people taking near glee in the idea of New Haven being a decrepit wasteland, booming retail sector and housing sector, growing population and lower crime rates be damned!

posted by: Bill Saunders on November 11, 2014  4:39pm

The police need to accept some culpability in this ‘perception problem’.

Yesterday, I was verbally assaulted and threatened with incarceration by a belligerent ‘traffic cop’ for, apparently, walking through a construction zone, which was unmarked, and served as a pedestrian walkway through the construction up until yesterday.

In fact, I have been threatened with incarceration several times in the last few years—my ‘crime’ has been asking questions, and not backing down from intimidation.

Look Inside, NHPD, and I think you will find half of your problem…

posted by: RhyminTyman on November 11, 2014  4:41pm

Madcap it seems that the negative nellies don’t want progress, they want the status quo so they can complain.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on November 11, 2014  5:03pm

I wonder if this is in the data.

Report shows racial profiling in YPD, NHPD
Tuesday, September 16, 2014


posted by: robn on November 11, 2014  6:55pm


I’d love to see that whole data set. Do you know if and where its available?

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on November 12, 2014  12:26am

posted by: robn on November 11, 2014 5:55pm


I’d love to see that whole data set. Do you know if and where its available?

Good question.

posted by: LorcaNotOrca on November 14, 2014  12:44pm

New Haven is leaps-and-bounds better now than it’s ever been, and it seems to be an ongoing trajectory. Hell, it’s better now than it was even 5 years ago. Give it some time. You’d have to be blind not to see how much it’s improved.

As far as crime, there’s still a lot of room for improvement, but no one who lives here can say it’s as bad as it used to be. Downtown is relatively safe, it’s the outlying neighborhoods (the ones that were/are always bad) I’d worry about. Let’s not make it sound like we’re walking over dead bodies on the sidewalks and huddling in our closets out of fear intruders will bust the door down.

And cops in general do need to stop being jerks. Everywhere. That would help.

New Haven needs to do more to appeal to a younger, more “hip” (i hate that word) crowd while retaining cultural diversity… I don’t think an influx of white hipsters is what’ll spell “success,” but if you want to attract young talented people to live, work and play here (which I think they do), you have to market yourself to more than just baby boomers from the suburbs! (No offense.) And I should add, someone over 40 shouldn’t be making the decisions on what’s cool for people in their 20s (unless that person over 40 has some good cred).
Just embrace more eccentric ideas and let new ones grow.

I could write a lot on this topic (and I have already). New Haven might be on the right track, so we’ll see where it goes.