Commercial Space

Commercial Space

Since its creation in 1794, a few things have changed for the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce. The city’s primary industries are no longer shipping and oystering, as they were in the late 18th century (though they do persist). There’s now a paid staff to support the organization’s members, rather than an all-volunteer crew. The group has grown from its 26 founders to a membership of 800, and members are no longer fined for missing or being late to a meeting.

At the same time, it’s surprising how much has stayed the same, right down to location. At its inception 225 years ago, the Chamber of Commerce met monthly at Ebenezer Parmele’s home and tavern on Chapel Street just across from the Green. Today that lot is occupied by a 13-story building which houses the Chamber’s 10th-floor offices, overlooking the city at the hub of the 15-town area it serves.

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The move to form a chamber of commerce—the second in the nation, after Charleston, South Carolina, according to a summary by New Haven Museum archivist Eleanor Kelman—was catalyzed by the French Revolutionary Wars, which were affecting New Haven shipping. In 1794, 19 New Haven ships “were being held as prizes in Great Britain and its West Indies colonies,” wrote Floyd M. Shumway and Richard Hegel in a history of the Chamber published in a 1994 volume of the Journal of the New Haven Colony Historical Society. “At the same time the French navy was trying to intercept any American merchantmen that were headed for English ports. New Haven’s prosperity depended largely on shipping, and the city’s economy was thus in great and immediate danger.”

Eventually, the concerns of Chamber members—among them familiar New Haven figures Eli Whitney, Noah Webster and Timothy Dwight—expanded well beyond shipping. Predating the United States Mint, for example, it “supported a move to supply small change—drastically needed by local merchants,” Kelman writes. A hundred years after the Chamber’s founding, the growing, industrialized city demanded attention to issues such as “smoke control, the sewage disposal system, dangerous mosquito pests, home rule, improved housing, public health and city planning.” The Chamber advocated for paved streets, a breakwater, a city park system, a central power station, hospitals, a fire department and a lighthouse, to name a few.

Some of the issues concerning Chamber members of earlier centuries sound familiar even now. An 1824 “Remonstrance of the Chamber of Commerce of New Haven against the Tariff Bill,” for example, complains that the national bill, which proposed “a great increase of duties on foreign imports, if passed into a law, will be productive of consequences extremely injurious to the best interests of the community…” Garrett Sheehan, current president and CEO of the Chamber, says the group rarely, if ever, weighs in on federal issues these days. But it does follow state legislation and advocate for business-friendly decisions in Hartford. For example, the Chamber has worked hard to advocate for a longer runway at Tweed New Haven Airport. A broader issue of concern is the need for a strong local workforce.

Despite the boon of a robust local economy for most of its history, the survival of the Greater New Haven Chamber wasn’t always assured. For more than three decades in the mid-19th century, the Chamber had no president as membership dwindled. But a reorganization in 1872 revived the faltering group. Fast-forwarding to the present, the Chamber has a healthy staff of 16 full-time employees and a three-pronged mission: providing networking and other benefits to its member businesses; advocating for public policies on their behalf; and supporting economic development and growth for the region. Members pay dues starting at $495 annually for a tiered structure of services. The Chamber also supports a chapter of Professionals Utilizing Learning & Social Events (PULSE) that connects younger professionals, aged 21 to 40.

One of eight regional chambers of commerce in the state, GNHCC is “a platform for businesses of all different shapes and sizes, different industries, to collaborate on common problems that they have and try to come up with solutions,” Sheehan says. “It doesn’t mean that we always take it all the way to the solution. But we raise the concern, find out information, identify businesses that want to support the issue and get behind it, and then work with the government partners on it.”

Sheehan imagines one other way in which the job of the Chamber remains the same more than two centuries after its founding. “In a membership organization in this day and age, you constantly have to innovate and change who you are to adjust to the business climate that’s out there and what people are expecting,” he says. “I’m sure that for us to be able to have gotten to this milestone, 225 years, that my predecessors were doing that on a regular basis as well.”

And even as technology has made it easier for businesses to connect and communicate, Sheehan notes, there’s one other element of doing business that’s unlikely to ever change. Whether gathered around a table at Parmele’s tavern or exchanging handshakes and business cards at one of the Chamber’s monthly Business After Hours events, there’s still nothing like “people getting together face to face.”

Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce
900 Chapel St, 10th floor, New Haven (map)
(203) 787-6735 |

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 2 and 3 depict historic photos in the collection of the New Haven Museum.

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