A familiar face came to the table at the Town Green Special Services District’s annual meeting on Feb. 22 when Gene Harris was unanimously elected to be the next chairman of the organization board of directors. Harris, who had been serving as acting chairman, replaced former Chairwoman Kathleen Etkin, who retired this past summer.
No stranger to the group, Harris was on the original board of directors when the organization was formed in 1997. At the time, Harris was also serving on the board of directors at the Graduate Club, a private social and business club on Elm Street, and represented the club in Town Green.
During his early years on the Town Green board of directors, Harris served on the hospitality committee, which was in charge of improving the experiences of visitors to downtown New Haven. Harris was later elected vice chairman in 2001 before assuming the role of acting chairman following Etkin’s retirement.
Harris said he has two main goals for Town Green.
“We have to sustain the programs which have already been put in place and have proven successful,” Harris said. “These projects were part of the initial push, the clean and safe approach. I think what has to be done next is coordination among the merchants for advertising and for seasonal promotions, and to make downtown a more vibrant environment.”
Harris first came to New Haven in 1969 and later served as a lieutenant in the New Haven Police Department. In 1987, Harris left the force to start the Eugene W. Harris Company, a wealth management firm in North Haven which he still owns and runs.
“He’s a very well-respected, very well-connected guy,” said Sam Brandao, the project manager at Town Green. “He meets with the mayor every couple of months. He has a good relationship with the Police Department and he has a great relationship with [Yale Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs] Bruce Alexander.”
Town Green was first created by a group of merchants and property owners who, feeling the city was not doing enough for the downtown area, voted to create a special district by imposing a voluntary tax upon themselves. To achieve their initial goal of making downtown cleaner and safer, Town Green implemented two programs — the Clean Team, which keeps the area clean, and the Downtown Ambassadors, who serve both as guides to visitors and as a community watch group.
Today, Town Green is made up of approximately 390 property owners in a 27-block area surrounding the New Haven Green. It receives funding from the voluntary tax on downtown properties and a voluntary contribution of $100,000 a year from the city of New Haven, Yale University and SNET, New Haven’s local telephone company. Most of this budget goes toward the maintenance of the Clean Team and Downtown Ambassadors.
Town Green has also helped coordinate community initiatives such as the INFO New Haven visitor center, the annual holiday lighting program and a downtown planting initiative.
Harris added that he would welcome a collaboration between Town Green and other business improvement organizations such as the Chapel West district and the Broadway Merchants Association.
“This is the approach the mayor has taken that downtown is not made up of isolated pockets,” Harris said. “Town Green is representative of a geographic location for the purposes of the services we provide, but it really encompasses all the merchants in the area.”