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Elm City Rocks (Project Name TBD)

January 14th, 2021 || Time to Read: 8 Minutes

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Someone once told me that:

"New Haven is large enough to have a real city feel to it, but small enough that you can make whatever you want to exist in town happen through sheer willpower".

I've seen that happen by being made a leader in NewHaven.IO, creating the short lived (and soon to be resurrected) New Haven Nerd League, and watching people create all kinds of cool things like Collab New Haven (an incredible entrepreneurial bootcamp), Elm City Games (our local board and tabletop gaming community center), and Manic Presents (arguably the most famous talent booker in the state), and all sorts of Meetups, clubs, and festivals.

But New Haven (and more broadly, Connecticut) seems to be stuck in this chicken & egg problem where young people don't want to move here because there aren't enough exciting companies around, and exciting companies founded here don't want to stay because the hiring pool is small.

There are smarter and more well connected people than me working on the "companies don't want to stay" part of the problem via methods like financial incentives, building out training/employee pipelines (shoutout Lisa & Winnie at SCSU!), and creating the kinds of spaces those companies might want to reside in. But we also need to solve the people side of the problem - New Haven needs to appear more cool, livable, and attractive to the people thinking about spending their 20's and 30's here.

The problem, as I see it, is twofold:

1.) We have a bit of an image problem. We all know what I'm talking about.

Granted, I think we're at an inflection point. I'm not keeping a super tight eye on how New Haven is portrayed by national news outlets but I feel like we're about to turn a corner from "Yale and gun crimes" to "culture, science, and tech hub of Connecticut."

However, Connecticuters seem dead set on this idea that "there's nothing to do in this state," which simply just isn't true. I feel like people are resistant to put in the change to make CT a rad place to live because NYC is a train ride away. But I also have a feeling that most people are like me in that even with the MTA station so close, I rarely go into the city.

I've seen Burlington, VT and the Capital Region of NY have incredible bursts of grassroots social campaigns that do incredible jobs of showing off just how cool, innovative, and fun to live in those parts of the country are. They show off restaurants, local events, pop-ups, live shows, food festivals, and way more. But in more than a journalistic way - they show off the hippest parts of the areas they represent, have big local followings, and are a great thing to show someone who may be considering moving there.

If we can't get excited about what's going on here, how can we expect potential new neighbors to get hyped?

2.) New Haven, as much as I love it, could have even more rad shit going on.

We have the WAKA kickball league, but we don't have a good drop-in pick up sports league. We have the New Haven Grand Prix, but we don't have any alley cats. We have amazing restaurants, but I can't seem to find any kind of underground culinary scene since Homecooked shut down.

There are all kinds of things I wished were going on when I moved here in 2016 that aren't any closer to being real things yet.

With Yale and our other colleges/universities, we attract some of the best and brightest minds in the world to spend several years of their lives here. Unfortunately those folks often leave when their schooling or tenure is up, which can make long term organizing continuity tricky for organizing teams of Meetups and other groups that pop up. I think that partially explains why we seem to have a lower concentration of high caliber events and groups compared to other cities our size.

We townies only have so much effort to pour into things once our families, jobs, and other obligations' needs are met.

But other cities face similar problems; we just have to be creative about solving this one. I think the answer is to have more micro-communities spun up to get these ideas in motion.

So now that we understand (at least part of) the problem, how do we fix it?

Again, I think the solution is twofold, but the two parts really feed into each other:

1.) I want to create a bunch of small event groups under one central umbrella.

Right off the bat I want to get some bike races organized, spin the New Haven Nerd League back up, and start planning an interactive city wide activation, among some other things.

The idea is to treat these event series the same way people treat startups. Try a lot of things out, rapidly iterate, and see what sticks. After people vote with their feet and make it clear what they want, just throw more and more effort at it to make sure the idea is the best it can be. When the events really start picking up steam, deputize from within the member group to create admin teams that can carry the momentum forward.

I see this working similarly to how NewHaven.IO came to be. It started as a cluster of disparate local tech groups that existed in vacuums until they were pulled under one banner.

It was one group overseeing a lot of niche micro-communities and has since grown to be the largest unified tech group in the state. That umbrella style community model made it easier for organizers to plan events, for members to only have one calendar to keep track of, to deduplicate effort expended on like-kind projects, and generally just have an all around easier time due to having one critical mass of members.

Through running IO, I got to meet a lot of nearby folks working on their own social projects. If any of them are down to collaborate, this one-two punch provides a great opportunity to help each other out to plan and pull off the kind fun shit we want to see happen.

I'd love to partner with Bradley Street Bike Co-op to plan some races, or work with Best Video Film/New Haven Screenwriters/Nutmeg Institute to create a film viewing club, and maybe now that Bun has some time on his hands (RIP Miya's as we know it) we could make a dent in that underground food scene.

That proven IO model can be used to start with small niche event series, collaborate with other like minded local groups, then recruit from within to organically grow those event series into a broader local event community.

2.) I want to use those events and micro-communities as the focus of a short video and podcast series on the Greater New Haven area.

Josh Levinson is doing a great job of this with Between Two Rocks, but New Haven needs other locals to step up and help. There are all kinds of cool groups making New Haven special and all sorts of history hidden around us that I'm still learning about four years later. We should be documenting it all and sharing it with others in a way that makes New Haven seem a more desirable place to live rather than putting out more lists of the area's best pizza and beer.

With a mix of videos showing off the events and culture in the city and a podcast interviewing the world class artists, community leaders, and scientists in town, it should be easy to make people want to move and stay here.

Similar to how Casey Neistat has New York City as the secret star of most of his content, I want to use videos recorded at the events I want to put on to create content to portray how hip, alive, and innovative New Haven is. Everyone who lives here knows how special this place is; we just need to do a better job of showing it to others.

We can use these events, the people who attend them, and the various venues they'll take part in as an in-road to the deeper cultural and historical contexts of the city for an easy marketing win.

The events will be put on because they're what people want to see in the city - the audio/video content will all just be a really nice bonus.

As vaccines are slowly rolled out, people are going to be itching to start getting back to a post-vaccine "new normal".

After spending what's looking to be more than a year cooped up, folks are going to want to get back out in the world, but I think we're going to see a good two years or so of reasonable people not wanting to stray too far from home.

We're all excited to be able to grab a beer at Barcade, see a show at College Street Music Hall, then end the night at Three Sheets and Mamoun's. But it'll take time for everyone to get the vaccine and for us to feel safe going farther than a couple towns away for trips or events again. Looking at you, CT Food Truck Festival and Meadows Lawn Pass.

Folks are going to want things to do, people to engage with, and experiences to share, but many won't feel safe going too far to scratch that itch.

Local communities are going to be at the most important we've seen them in our lifetimes. This can help fill that void.

If I can plan enough of this out ahead of time, I can catch the post-vaccine wave and grow our membership to that critical mass to make something like this self sustaining. Enough interesting events going on that enough members want to bring their friends to will provide the audio and video needed to put together content that makes New Haven seem even more cool to people thinking about coming here.

By having the local event series accelerator and the media house under the same umbrella we can keep creating more and more things for our neighbors to enjoy whether it be events to partake in or content to keep learning about interesting things in the city they love. Having that group of micro-communities built around one umbrella entity lets us take advantage of the network effect IO was able to enjoy where we can plan trial events we're not really sure about and potentially have a lot of people show up just because of our reputation as "the micro-community group" in town.

I think it's a solid solution to our chicken and egg problem and one that can be solved without the connections and financial capital needed to chip away at the other side of the coin. Like I said, there are people smarter and more well connected than me working on that problem. I'm going to roll my sleeves up and help out where I best can.

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