A 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.
The 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.
At 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
New 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.)
The 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.
On 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.