Circuit Avenue loses its spark

A benchmark Circuit Avenue property, the Hall family's large, disused Island Theater needs extensive repairs. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

“I’ve never seen so many empty buildings. Thank God Linda Jean’s is still open.” said long time Island resident William Rau, standing in front of one of the empty buildings on Circuit Avenue on a recent sunny afternoon in Oak Bluffs. “You’d think somebody would snap these places up. Maybe we just need something different. How many pubs and tee-shirt stores do you need?”

Circuit Avenue is in a sad state. For the first time in memory, two stores sat dormant for the entire summer. The Strand, the historic, extravagantly large — for a small town — movie theater that’s drawn people to downtown for almost 100 years, sits empty and decrepit. The Island, the Strand’s sister theater just across Telford Square, is being used for bicycle storage. Seasons restaurant and nightclub, the reincarnation of the Atlantic Connection, where crowds used to flock to see top-flight bands, lies dormant, smack in the middle of Circuit Avenue, like a missing front tooth on what used to be a charming smile. More and more buildings need paint, or may be held together by it. And business, for the most part, is down.

“I was off about five to ten percent,” said Todd Rebello, owner of Oak Bluffs stores Sunsations, The South Beach Store, In the Bluff, and co-owner of The Locker Room. “It’s been a strange year. In the past, business has been pretty predictable: even in tough times people can afford our items. This year, you can’t predict one week to the next. You wouldn’t believe how many people try to haggle over a $20 tee-shirt.”

Mr. Rebello, also a world renowned professional poker player, says business owners have to go “all in” to improve the condition of the street. “It’s up to the owners, and the people who occupy the storefronts have to give the town a facelift,” he said. “Capitalism will sort out the empty buildings.”

Red tape blues

“Usually we have more people than space on Circuit Avenue,” said Alan Schweikert, a well-known Oak Bluffs realtor. “Things will improve when the bank is done and Beetlebung opens [a new Beetlebung Restaurant and Cafe is slated to open at 53 Circuit Ave in the spring], but the town has to take a strong hand. The moratorium on sewage kills any possibility of expansion. The town needs to say ‘How can we help you,’ instead of ‘How can we stop you?'”

Mr. Rebello echoed Mr. Schweikert, saying, “There’s too much red tape. When you pull a permit to fix one thing, you have to bring everything that’s grandfathered in up to code. I know someone on the street who ended up paying $14,000 to replace two sinks. That’s an enormous cost to people whose margins are already thin. You have three months to make your money, and the shoulder seasons aren’t what they used to be. There’s got to be some way to encourage improvement and not trigger enormous costs or the threat of a referral.”

Marc Hanover, owner of Linda Jean’s for the past 36 years, doesn’t share Mr. Rebello’s view of town regulations, but he agreed that Circuit Avenue needs a facelift. “I rebuilt my building 10 years ago, and I had a good experience with the town,” he said. “But I can definitely see where Circuit Ave could be dressed up a little bit. Years ago there was talk of bricking the street and the sidewalks. Right now, it would just be nice if the owners of the empty buildings did something with the windows. The Secret Garden showed how much you can do with some carpentry and some paint. ”

“I don’t like government meddling in those kinds of issues,” said Walter Vail, chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen. “But I think people have to understand that Circuit Avenue is a destination, and it needs to look the part. We’re trying to develop something with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, something that has a little teeth in it, so if owners don’t have enough pride to keep their property in good shape, we can step in. We’re bringing an article to the town meeting in November that addresses this.”

The lost picture show

To a number, every merchant interviewed brought up the Island Theater as a major impedance to recharging Circuit Avenue.

“The movie theater is very disheartening,” said Sharon Kelly, proprietor of the Secret Garden, whose storefront is regarded by many as the benchmark of what Circuit Avenue could be. “It’s the entrance to town. Whether I think it’s had a direct impact on business, I’m not sure. It certainly doesn’t set a nice tone for the rest of the town. It’s disheartening that the owners could leave it in such disrepair. It’s the gateway to the town.”

“Malls have anchor stores like Macy’s and J.C. Penney; on Circuit Avenue, it was the movie theaters,” said Mr. Rebello. “Whether people go to the movies or parents drop off kids and go shop and get something to eat, the theaters bring people downtown. I saw a big drop-off in nighttime business this year.”

Brian Hall, co-owner of the Island and Strand Theaters, said roof repairs that started after this winter’s storms revealed many years of unseen damage and decay to the 98-year-old structure. “When we went to fix some leaks we discovered the entire roof needed to be replaced,” Mr. Hall said in a telephone interview with the Times. “The roof system is supported by trusses, and one truss was almost completely rotted away. When the engineer looked at outside of the building and saw where the trusses were resting, he said, ‘This building has been standing for almost 100 years. For every day it stood you were lucky.'”

Mr. Hall estimates that to get the theater back to operating condition, it will take at least $300,000 worth of repairs, which is difficult to justify given the steady decline in movie theater attendance.

“The Island [theater] hasn’t made a profit in over 15 years,” he said. “It was a labor of love for my father. The single screen movie operations are an anachronism. If they still exist they are supported by a non-profit with a benefactors. We have two non-profit film societies, the Island doesn’t need another one of those. I don’t see how we can run it as a theater. If someone else wants to run it as a theater, we’re happy to do a lease.”

As to other potential uses for the property, Mr. Hall said they’ll have a better idea of their options after work is allowed to resume on September 15 — an Oak Bluffs town ordinance prohibits any construction or maintenance that impedes pedestrian traffic on Circuit Avenue between June 1 and September 15.

“Right now we’re at a crossroads as to how to proceed,” he said. “Turning it back into a theater doesn’t make financial sense. I’ve been up on that roof, there’s fantastic views, there’s a lot of directions we could go. We’re trying to come up with possible concepts, and we’re doing the numbers. We’ll look at what makes the most sense for the town and for us, financially. Or maybe we’ll sell.”