Names: Winfield Davis/Christina Ortwein
Titles: Executive director/Business center manager
Organization: Town Green Special Services District, a business improvement district providing services and advocacy for businesses in downtown New Haven
Born: New Haven, March 8, 1980/Bethlehem, Pa., visit us. 14, 1953
Education: BA, History and Psychology, University of Vermont (2002)/Northampton Community College, Bethlehem, Pa.; George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.
Accomplishments: It was not too long ago that New Haven’s Ninth Square neighborhood felt very much on the outskirts of the city center.
Today the area is almost unrecognizable in its atmosphere and vitality — restaurants, shops and other businesses as well as living spaces have flourished in recent years.
The Town Green Special Services District has been providing visitor information, beautification, cleanup and safety services, as well as business advocacy since 1996, and while the heart of downtown steadily revitalized, the Ninth Square seemed slow to catch on. When Executive Director Win Davis started in 2002 as a public space director (he was an intern the year before), there was a 40-percent vacancy rate for downtown storefronts — a plurality of them in the Ninth Square.
While it was mostly restaurants that brought people to the area, it was innovation that set the area apart — shared work spaces like the Grove, the Bourse, and MakeHaven injected the area with young people and experimental business models, as seen in the studio/storefront clothing design of Neville Wisdom.
“It shifted the focus from restaurants and residential to innovation. Now you’ve got a lot of very talented people all of sudden calling the Ninth Square home,” Davis says.
He adds that the addition of the 360 State Street apartment tower and Elm City Market, along with the opening of Gateway Community College’s downtown campus will only spur further growth, traffic issues aside.
“Most downtowns in America would feel very good about having parking and traffic issues; that means people are actually coming downtown,” Davis says. “We’re dealing with growing pains, and that’s a very desirable position to be in.”
Chris Ortwein, who joined the District in November 2011 following an established career working in downtown revitalization in Pennsylvania, heads the Economic Prosperity Initiative, managing business recruitment and retention, and working with everyone from business owners to brokers and public officials.
“I thought this was a place we could really create more awareness that it was a marketplace and a shopping district, and that we find the right type of people that fit,” she says, celebrating the arts, innovation and wellness businesses that have flourished there. “We needed to get more foot traffic down there.”
In April Ortwein launched the On 9 open house event that takes place with a different theme each first Friday of the month on the streets of the Ninth Square, designed to give a taste of the restaurants, stores and other neighborhood destinations.
She also launched the Downtown Business Center website, which collects information, reports, statistics and resources for aspiring business owners looking to locate downtown.
The Ninth Square now has one of the lowest vacancy rates in the city, Davis says. The downtown commercial vacancy rate as a whole is now hovering at 13 percent.
The New York Times even recently featured a brief slideshow showcasing the Ninth Square on its website.
“It was my plan to create awareness of the Ninth Square as a destination,” Ortwein says “People think of Yale, and restaurants, but not the Ninth Square, so the fact that we got an article in the New York Times was really something.”
There’s still plenty to be done. Among the objectives and future goals, Davis says that finding a way to convert downtown one-way streets to allow two-way traffic is a concern, and Ortwein mentions the fate of the former Veterans Memorial Coliseum site which borders the Ninth Square, and how the city’s plans for the property will impact future plans for the neighborhood.
Most significant obstacle encountered and how surmounted: Davis says the largest continuing obstacle deals with the sometimes negative perception of New Haven, especially in suburban communities.
“You read the paper and watch the news, and your perception is colored,” he says. “Right or wrong, people’s perception of New Haven is that it’s a tough place. But when people come downtown their perception changes. They see this vibrant, beautiful city; nine times out of ten [their experience] is more positive than they thought it would be. We’re trying to make sure those people come back.”
Advice for other professional people/Guiding philosophy: “This is something that really has to be in your blood because there are so many challenges that go along with it,” Ortwein says. “If you don’t love what you’re doing, you’re not going to last very long.”
Davis’ philosophy is to “Leave things better than the way you found them.” It is one he likens to a quote from Gandhi to “be the change you’d like to see.”
“Being involved in your community is something I’d recommend to everybody,” he says. “It’s part of what every city and town needs. Community is a big part of why our efforts in the Ninth Square are succeeding.”
Person who most influenced their lives: Davis gives a nod to his predecessor Rena Leddy for her example, but more specifically points to his old Boy Scout master, Charlie Whiting.
“He taught me a great deal about being a man, and I’m grateful to him for all he gave me in terms of leadership, and really everything that scouting gives a guy,” he says.
Ortwein credits the influence and perseverance of one of her downtown revitalization colleagues in Pennsylvania, Diana Kerr, who worked for the commonwealth’s Department of Community & Economic Development.
“She worked there for 25 years, and I owe my career to the fact that she worked through the bureaucracy to keep it going,” she says.
— John Mordecai
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