Snowflakes, Christmas trees and reds and greens may have taken over the New Haven downtown area, but city promoters say it would be a mistake to confuse the Elm City with the typical suburban mall experience.
Community organizations, stores and city promoters have come together this season to offer visitors a slew of events ranging from a holiday window-decoration contest to “Hung by the Chimney,” a concert by the Connecticut Gay Men’s Chorus. Promoters said they have seen a rise in attendance from previous years, but whether the increased tourism will translate into successful sales for stores in a season of economic downturn remains to be seen.
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“It’s not just about spending money,” Town Green Special Services District Assistant Director Daisy Abreu said. “We’ve created a festival atmosphere, so people and families want to come and enjoy the things we’re offering.”
New Haven offers a unique alternative to shopping malls because of its great wealth of restaurants, unique shops and theaters, Abreu said. Over 130 restaurants are situated within walking distance of the Green, Abreu said, and since 2002, over 100 new businesses have entered the downtown area.
The University’s museums, the Knights of Columbus Museum and the city’s theaters also contribute to this cultural wealth, Greater New Haven Convention & Visitors Bureau President Ginny Kozlowski said.
Every Thursday, stores and museums plan to hold late hours, Abreu said, and every week the holiday festivities will highlight one shopping district. This week, the Chapel and College street shopping area plans to feature a Santa and a toy drive, and this Thursday the Yale Gospel Choir is set to tour the area in the city’s electric trolley while singing carols. Meanwhile, visitors can indulge in free popcorn, peanuts and cider.
“All of us are working to really get this off the ground, to get people to not go to the malls as much and to really enjoy the experience of a town of this size culturally and dining-wise and the eclectic shopping that’s here,” Abreu said.
Kozlowski said she views New Haven’s holiday celebration as the culmination of the many seasonal events that New Haven hosts during the year, such as the International Festival of Arts & Ideas and the Music on the Green concert series. The filming of Indiana Jones this summer in New Haven — which drew hundreds of onlookers and fans — may also have inspired people from out of town to revise their impressions of the city, she said.
“A lot of people … came down who probably hadn’t been down in a number of years and saw what had transpired in the downtown areas — the number of shops that are open and the number of restaurants that are open — and people became excited and engaged,” Kozlowski said.
For now, stores are sitting tight and watching the holiday crowds filter in. But while Urban Objects store owner Karen Conlin said she and other local merchants are concerned that this year’s consumers are pickier than in the past, she said she is holding out for the last week and a half before Christmas, when she generated the most revenue last year.
Atticus Book Store Cafe General Manager Jean Recapet said New Haven has often been insulated from national economic downturns. The cafe has seen an increase in sales compared to last year, which he partly attributed to the Yale Repertory Theatre productions down the street.
“You know, I’ve been in New Haven a long time … New Haven is a microclimate when it comes to the economy,” he said. “I don’t want to say we’re Teflon, [but] the downtown area has always been a very vibrant and resilient area for retailers — through the years we’ve been fairly unaffected by the economy.”
Abreu said while the holiday program grows every year, there is still room for more students and out-of-town residents to engage in the city and work past their assumptions. For example, she said, people from out-of-town may be deterred from coming to the city on the assumption that parking will be difficult, dangerous or expensive. The issue is a matter of perception, Abreu said, since the city has plenty of street garages that are open well into the night.
The Town Green Special Services District is also working to promote the city’s festivities to Yale students, Abreu said, but she is unsure how successful those efforts have been. Final exams and reading period distract students from enjoying the festivities, but increased student participation would be achievable if students could have a better sense of New Haven events through a “more open line of communication,” Abreu said.
But when it comes to visitors from around the nation and the world, Kozlowski said plenty are starting to realize all that the city has to offer.
“When people come here and experience the city, they like what they find,” Kozlowski said. “You can go out and walk a couple blocks and be at a world-class museum or art gallery, you have access to the cultural assets that Yale has … we’re small enough, but we’re a city, and people can have a big-city experience without having to go to a big city.”
-Kristin Heintz contributed reporting.