Brandon Hesson: Pushing Main Street further

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Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper
Brandon Hesson likes to think of himself as a “pollinator” on Cambridge’s main street area. You’re more likely to find him working in a downtown business than in his office, as seen here in Jimmie & Sooks restaurant.

CAMBRIDGE — Brandon Hesson is the director of Cambridge Main Street, an organization tasked with promoting businesses and events centered in the “Main Street” of Cambridge, being the business blocks of Race, Poplar, and High streets in downtown Cambridge.

Mr. Hesson grew up in Easton, in a family that was mad about sports, so he was born to be competitive in everything. “I use something I learned from team sports just about every day. My parents and siblings were all athletes, so we didn’t get away with complaining very much.”
He graduated Salisbury University with a BA in English, and took his first job with Chesapeake Publishing as the weekly sports editor for the Bay Times (Stevensville) and The Record Observer (Centreville). When the newspaper business started taking a dip, he took a position with Eastern Shore Vacation rentals, working his way up to General Manager, and after that worked with SOTERA Defense as a buyer.

At 19-years-old, he and a friend started a small performance company called Cricket Theatre, mostly for fun and to take advantage of venues available in the area. The business worked its way into a 501 [c][3] nonprofit, and later became ArtHouse Live Productions. In 10 years they promoted almost 50 events, mostly in the Avalon Theater, and were in the center of the storm as Easton grew into the town it is today. During this time he acquired a wife and two kids, and moved to Cambridge.

Mr. Hesson was hired as the Director of Main Street in July of 2014. After more than six months on the job, and now entering his first full season of Cambridge events, we got together to see what’s in store for Cambridge Main Street this summer.

Banner: What’s going on with Cambridge Main Street?

Brandon Hesson: I think this year I finally have my wits about me a little bit. The first few months on the job were tough because I could really only focus on the thing right in front of me. It was Summer Sendoff, and then it was fundraising season. So it’s nice right now. I can actually sit back and focus on my whole year.

We’ve got a few new things planned as a result. We’re looking at an outdoor film festival to be thrown in town here, probably later in the year. There’s an idea of a wine festival that’s almost certainly going to happen. We’ve just got to find a good date for it. It’s actually exciting to sit back and look at the year as I would like to see it unfold as opposed to soldiering on with an existing plan.

Banner: What kind of positive things have happened for Cambridge Main Street in the past year since you’ve started? What do you have that you can brag about?

Brandon Hesson: I just asked that question of the board last night because we’re working on our first annual report ever. It begs the question, how are we going explain to somebody what we’ve done? I think we’ve done a really good job of attracting tourists to the area. We do a really good job of bringing money here. I don’t know how we could be any better at bringing money here, and that’s not just Cambridge Main Street. That’s the Crabi Gras events at Cannery Way. That’s The High Spot Belgian Beer Festival and things on High Street. That’s the Cambridge Wheels Car Show that comes in on Aug. 9. It isn’t just the Cambridge Main Street function. I think we’ve done a really good job of rallying support around ideas downtown.

What I’d like to improve on is actually getting in and talking to businesses about their businesses. On one hand I’m a program administrator for a nonprofit organization, but I also add some value to the business owners downtown just in terms of real world experience. I went through this period where people needed to get to know me and trust me a little bit. I think people feel my energy right away, which is good. I think they all trust me a little bit now to start having conversations about what can Cambridge Main Street do to actually help their business grow. That’s exciting.

Banner: Has Cambridge Main Street ever looked into doing any kind of informal seminars with groups of businesses? Sitting them down in the conference room and talking to them about simple stuff related to promotion and advertising?

Brandon Hesson: We partner with the Chamber of Commerce, the City Economic Development Office and the County Economic Development Office. In 2014 we partnered with them on a program called Business Building Blocks. It was a four-part program, more specific to restaurants and retail. The point of the Business Building Blocks was to help people navigate seasonal changes in revenue, which the retail and restaurants really needed help with that. Those things were widely accepted as useful seminars. We also worked with Rich Loeffler and the Small Business Development Center, over at the city office.

Those were extremely valuable tools. I think that Cambridge Main Street could be a little bit more proactive in helping that grow, be part of a economic steering committee with those groups.

I did a focus group in the second half of last year, which was incredibly valuable. That’s something we’ll continue doing, but no one’s going to see that because it doesn’t happen in front of 3,000 people under the guise of a crab cook-off. It’s all part of what we actually do to accomplish the mission, which is revitalizing downtown Cambridge.

If you aren’t doing the second part of that equation, when you bring 4,000 people into town for a big event and they leave, what you’ve done is you’ve provided all of your businesses a really good day. If you don’t use that as something to propel them further down the road, if you don’t take that and then create some programming to educate them or help them solve some problems, we’ve given someone a fish instead of teaching them how to fish.

Banner: What are the opportunities downtown for people who want to start a business?

Brandon Hesson: I don’t think there’s any better time … I’m trying to think of way to say this that isn’t totally like a commercial, but I don’t know how to say it any other way. I’ve lived in this city for 13 years. I’m not new to the city. I don’t know that I’ve come across a better time to start a business in downtown Cambridge.

Banner: Why is that?

Brandon Hesson: Because we finally have some sustained success. I think if you look up and down the street, there are very few new businesses on the street. The ones that are left now have survived because they are solid business plans with a good idea, and they’re doing a good job of selling their product. And they’re starting to learn how to use one another, which I think is really smart.
If you come out of rough economic times like we just have and you look up and down the street and you see 20 businesses that survived the same thing that you did, it’s, A, you have more respect for people that are one the street, and B, you have really strong allies to work with, not against. I’m really hoping that that is something that continues.

When I first got this job, Steve Rideout sent me a article about Berlin. Berlin, Md was voted the Main Street of America several years ago. If you look at the Berlin story, what you had was a group of businesses working together from the start. If you don’t have the product that a customer is looking for, and you say Joe across the street does, and he’s doing the same thing for you, instead of two people in your store, you’ve created a 40-person organization now. I think we’re finally starting to do that.

Banner: Instead of working in competition, you help each other out.

Brandon Hesson: Yeah. And people feel that energy. Forget if that actually translates into sales. The fact that it’s just such a much more positive interaction. Being standoffish and being separate is something that Cambridge needs to let go of, and specifically downtown. If this is going to be the heart of our community, if this really is going to be the historical community that we want to have, it’s got to start here before we expect everyone else to do it.

Banner: And Cambridge Main Street is helping that out?

Brandon Hesson: Yes. It’s really hard for someone who is that two-employee store to get out and discuss ideas with other people. It’s the one thing that I’m afforded in my day that a lot of business owners aren’t. I love walking down from my office, coming down to a shop, talking to someone about a tax concern, walking across the street here and helping someone figure out how to rent more tuxes during prom. Then walking down the street and saying, you know what? I just had this conversation about prom and now this place also sells jewelry and clothes. That’s how ideas start. Am I the bee flying around helping pollinate strong ideas? Sometimes I feel like that’s what it is.
Banner: How does Second Saturday work out in Cambridge?

Brandon Hesson: Second Saturdays are an interesting thing because every town’s got one, but it’s funny how they develop differently. Second Saturdays in our town are primarily focused on the galleries and retail, and the retail stays open a little bit later. But you go to other towns, and they can be full-blown street events. Second Saturdays are one of those things that we coordinate every month, and so it’s another opportunity for businesses to be on the same page, and it’s that one point every month where we’re all going do something in unison. It’s hard this time of year when it’s freezing cold outside and you don’t get as much foot traffic. But it’s a big night, and that’s a Cambridge Main Street function.

Banner: Let’s talk about some new things that are coming up in your Main Street jurisdiction. What’s going to be new this summer? To prompt you I’ll say, what are the guys at 447 (Race Street) doing?
Brandon Hesson: I’m going to dodge that question a little bit. I think 447 is undergoing a pretty massive project. That project is maybe a little bit more complex than I think. Now I’ve spoken to them a few times, this was a while back, and I really wanted to know exactly what their issues were and see if there’s some way to help. I don’t think there is. It’s just good old fashioned elbow grease and time that is going make that happen.

I almost hate talking about it because I really don’t know, but let me be clear about this — a venue like that would be the spark that this Main Street district needs to make it.

Banner: Describe what you mean. What is the venue they’re creating?

Brandon Hesson: Right now in the back they’ve got a stage area that would probably accommodate 200 people standing, I’m guessing, and then a restaurant in the front. There’s also a performance space upstairs. That project is important. I like those guys, and they’re working really hard and I want that to work, a project like 447 makes downtown a lot different.

That was a big shift in my youth when everything took off (in Easton). Instead of coming downtown to buy something you need, now you come downtown to see what’s going on. You stopped saying, “I wonder what’s going on downtown,” and you started saying, “Hey, let’s go downtown and see what’s going on,” because you had options.

I think the bars and the restaurants in Cambridge, and the brewery, does an amazing job of entertaining people, but it needs another layer. It doesn’t need some new-concept business. It just needs another layer to it. So I’m really hoping that can manifest itself in 447.

To succeed now in a business you can’t just open the door and prop yourself up on the counter. You’ve got to have something underneath the something. For the Brewery it’s distribution underneath their taproom sales. For Liv Again, it’s the furniture component, they’ve got their gallery component, and they’ve got a performing arts second floor venue that I think is outstanding, and the second floor of DCA is a great venue. They are people who own a business who aren’t tied down to one concept forever and ever.

There’s got to be something underneath the something. That’s the modern day business model.

Banner: Who else has come up? Anybody else?

Brandon Hesson: RAR is doing something new. They were saying by July 1 that their production facility will be working at 501 Gay St. (RAR Brewery is opening a canning facility to package their beers for distribution).

There is the new radio station, WHCP, happening at 512 Poplar St. I’ve got to watch it, making sure I’m not spreading rumors, but the Four Corner building here (Poplar & High streets) has got permits in, and I still haven’t spoken with anybody there to know exactly what that’s going to become, but I keep hearing it. Work on that is imminent, which is good news. That’s sort of unofficial right now because, like I said, I still haven’t sat down and spoken with the ownership group.

Banner: You don’t want to speculate on what they’re doing there.

Brandon Hesson: I don’t know. I actually don’t know. But it’s good because it’s such a key building. Forgot about who bought it and forget about what they’re doing, What it represents is something probably a little bit bigger, to have that gateway to our main street lit up and looking like something is a big deal. If an entertainment venue on that end of the street is able to get done, think about how that connects our blocks.

The buildings that have been burnt and gutted by fire and storms, those are complicated things for an organization like mine because people that come and make an immediate impact on places like that are rare. But I know that it’s easier to find that person when we’ve connected everything between it. It looks a lot more attractive to someone when you’ve got three super active blocks versus one and a half. That’s more of my long-term goal, to really connect myself more to the information that helps push that kind of program.

Banner: How do we tie all this together? What’s in the future for Cambridge Main Street? How’s this summer going to be?

Brandon Hesson: I think it’s going to be fun. I think what’s happening is everybody’s got a good positive energy about summer. One thing I really want to impress on people is let’s find new ways to invite folks in. People who live here in Cambridge are starting to connect to downtown more. Maybe it’s not the big department store, but I think people are starting to look downtown and see friendly neighbors and see people that they’d like to support, which is great. That’s the first step. You got to become something your town needs.

I think now the next step is let’s keep inviting people in. We saw it for Ironman. I caught a little glimpse of it … my third day on the job, Plein Air Easton came to town, and there were four or five painters up and down the street painting storefronts. Beautiful stuff. We’re walking up and down the street carrying tables to set up for Taste of Cambridge, and we walked up on this painter, she was painting the Joie de Vivre. Standing next to her were two neighborhood kids, a woman with a bag — she had just left Sunnyside probably, and then me and Tom. We walked up, and she was talking about how beautiful Cambridge was and how lucky we were to call this home. Of course the neighborhood kids were looking at her like, “What the heck are you talking about?” Then the older lady with the shopping bag was agreeing.

I think that’s more what I want. I want to take those five painters who talked good about Cambridge, and I want to make it 10,000 people that come to town. People who live here, I don’t think they understand how unique and actually beautiful Cambridge is. I think we can take this positive energy and make it into something, not point at the negative energy.

This summer’s going to be fun because I think we’ve overcome a lot of hurdles. I think we’ve started working together. I think we’ve started to become the center of our community again. Now it’s time to take it a little bit further. Find new ways to get people into town and make them want to stay.

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