Hall family’s crumbling empire weighs on towns

Hall family’s crumbling empire weighs on towns

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The Island theater, one of three theaters the Hall family owns in the towns of Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven. — File Photo by Steve Myrick

Standing in the dimly lit projection room on the second floor of the Capawock Theatre in Vineyard Haven, Benjamin “Buzzy” Hall picked up the shell of an old film reel and grinned.

An old 35 millimeter projection reel at the Capawock Theater.
An old 35 millimeter projection reel at the Capawock Theater.

“I’m the only guy on the Island that can play 35 millimeter,” he said.

At 78, Mr. Hall, often referred to as Buzzy, is an avid opera fan, a talented singer, and a music lover with a penchant for collecting and restoring vintage gramophones.

Descendants of a well-known banker and businessman, Mr. Hall and his family have a long-standing history in the real estate business on Martha’s Vineyard. Varying in size and scale, the family, including Buzzy, his two sisters, and his sons Brian and Benjamin, own upwards of $40 million of real estate, including 113 residential, commercial, and retail properties and undeveloped land across the Island.

Many properties are leased to tenants who own their own successful  businesses, Mr. Hall said. Others, such as the Capawock Theatre and the “yellow house” in Edgartown, remain vacant and left to depreciate.

“All of the properties are linked together,” Mr. Hall said. “Financially, we have to figure out what we’re going to do. We’re what you call property poor. You should see our real estate tax bill. It would buy a couple projectors at $50,000 a piece. Probably even more than that.”

Mr. Hall said he would like to find a solution for the crumbling theatres.

“I don’t know, it’s hand to mouth,” Mr. Hall said. “I’m trying to work out some financing. You know, we’re not nonprofit. People don’t come down the pike and hand us $100,000 to buy a projector or buy seats. But I would like to keep it open,” he said of the Capawock.

The Times spoke with Mr. Hall about the family’s real estate holdings, what they plan to do about the vacant theaters, and what he says to the critics.

Edgartown

According to assessors records, the Halls own $32,427,100 in commercial and residential property in Edgartown, including the brick Port Hunter building assessed at $1,693,500, the building at 47 Main Street assessed at $2,072,000 and 53 Main Street at $2,087,700.

Built in 1850, the "yellow house" in Edgartown is assessed at just over $2 million.
Built in 1850, the “yellow house” in Edgartown is assessed at just over $2 million.

Perhaps the most notorious property owned by the Hall family is the long vacant “yellow house” on the corner Main street Summer street. Built in 1850, the yellow house is assessed at $2,037,700.

“My wife passed away not too many years ago, and we’re trying to settle her estate, which is critical,” Mr. Hall said. “And we’re selling properties in order to raise the funds to be able to pour into other properties, like the ‘yellow house.'”

The Hall family has been at odds with the town over the state of the decaying house, recently culminating in the Edgartown Community Preservation Committee (CPC) decision to allocate $1.4 million toward the acquisition of the house, a vote that was shortly rescinded. The property, which town officials would like to see improved, and an overgrown linden tree on the property’s Main Street frontage that the family would like to cut down, have been at the heart of an ongoing tussle between town officials and the Hall family since 2003.

“It’s ridiculous what they’ve been doing with this stupid tree,” Mr. Hall said. “Town counsel has no motivation to keep the board of selectmen out of trouble when there’s a fight.”

Mr. Hall said that his son, Benjamin Hall Jr., has been working with Edgartown architect Patrick Ahearn on plans to rebuild the yellow house on its existing location.

Selectman Margaret Serpa said on Monday that while she personally hasn’t heard from the Halls, she would like to see some action taken. “At this point we haven’t had any contact with them,” she said. “That would be a start.”

Oak Bluffs

“There’s been a lot of questions about our presence in Oak Bluffs,” Mr. Hall said. “There’s two big properties that could probably bring in a lot of capital that we can put into other properties we have. Or if somebody came to us and had a business plan for a particular property and they wanted to lease it for 30 years, that’s a viable process.”

The Strand, in the brilliance of its glory days, in 2004.
The Strand, in the brilliance of its glory days, in 2004.

The properties Mr. Hall is referring to are the Island Theatre, assessed at  $793,700, and the Strand Theater, assessed at $974,600.

According to a 20-page consultants’ report delivered to Oak Bluffs town officials on January 28 regarding the revitalization of Circuit Avenue and downtown,  a group of consultants concluded that the town can be made more “inviting” to visitors, more conducive to business success, and more accommodating to residents through the revitalization of certain business properties.

The report went on to depict both the Island and the Strand theaters as “eyesores that deter foot traffic” that set a decidedly down at the heels air to the entrance of the town. To address this, the report suggested the creation of a redevelopment entity “with adequate financial resources to quickly act to ensure vacant structures do not become a drain on nearby merchants,” and perhaps the addition of a blight ordinance that would penalize owners of buildings left to deteriorate.

When asked in January about the town’s response to The Downtown Inventory Survey, selectman chairman Walter Vail said he hoped to have a minimum maintenance bylaw on the warrant for the April town meeting. “The planning board has to get out there and get some meetings going,” he said at the time.

In an email response to The Times Wednesday, Mr. Vail said the beautification article he had adverted to in January will not be on the town meeting warrant in April because it is “not ready yet.”

In total,the Halls own three commercial properties in Oak bluffs totaling $1,899,390.

What will the family do about the theaters? Mr. Hall said he is more interested in maintaining them to pass them down to future generations.

“The way I look at it is it’s a legacy,” he said. “That’s what we’re looking at. I’ve got four grandchildren, they’re going to have families eventually. It’s a legacy, so our concern is hanging on to the properties and putting them into a viable condition, because these are all old rundown properties.”

Buzzy said he has hopes that the Strand will reopen one day in the near future. The Island Theater is a different story.

“The Island Theater, because it was a theater it kept running as a theatre, but now it’s beyond repair,” Mr. Hall said.

Tisbury/West Tisbury

The Halls own $1, 646,700 in condos, commercial and retail property in Tisbury and three properties in West Tisbury totaling $1,893,900.

The Capawock on Main Street, Vineyard Haven.
The Capawock on Main Street, Vineyard Haven.

Among the most notable of those in Tisbury are a series of units which are rented as retail space on Main Street, along with the Capawock Theatre.

Currently the total assessed parcel value including the building and the land where the Capawock stands is $1,393,800, according to assessors records.

The Capawock, with its long decaying facade and boarded up windows, has been closed this winter. Plans to reopen the theater on a full-time basis are uncertain.

“We have a current crisis,” Mr. Hall said. “It’s one word, digital. Until we have a DCI (digitally compliant) projector in this building we’re not going to run movies anymore. Basically, I’m not taking my own sons’ advice. I’m in here running a business, and they allow me to do it because they know I love it. But it’s not a viable business.”

Mr. Hall said he has considered selling the property. “The guy that would buy it would have to be of a mindset of my own, because it ain’t gonna make money,” he said. “It’s primary property. My sons are ambivalent at this point about what to do with it, but I’m not taking my own sons’ advice. They know I love it, and they enjoy it, the idea of it.”

In a recent telephone conversation with The Times, Tisbury selectman Jeff Kristal said the Capawock, like other seasonal businesses in Tisbury, is not viable as a year-round business.

“The town is in no active talks with the Halls,” Mr. Kristal said. “And I don’t necessarily think that we need to be.” He added that the town has an open-ended relationship with the Hall family, as they do with every other business owner in Tisbury.

“I think the town has worked on trying to make not only the Halls’ but other businesses in town work together toward policy changes that we’ve made over the last several years,” he said. “The Halls have responded with keeping the Capawock open in a very difficult business climate. Going forward, if there’s any concern, we’ll be talking with the Halls, but this town’s always had a great relationship with them.”

In February, Tisbury selectmen approved a public amusement license for the Capawock, so it could be used as a venue for other types of performances in addition to movies.

“I think all of us thought it was a great idea,” Mr. Kristal said. “We’d love to have a year-round theater, but if it doesn’t make financial sense, I’m not going to tell the Halls how to do it.”

A family history of acquisitions

The business of buying properties on the Island began by and large with Buzzy Hall’s father, Alfred.

Ben "Buzzy" Hall sits front and center in the Capawock Theater in Vineyard Haven this past February.
Ben “Buzzy” Hall sits front and center in the Capawock Theater in Vineyard Haven this past February.

“My father established several businesses here,” Mr. Hall said. “At the time he was told by the men who lived here that there were only three businesses in town; the telegraph stock exchange business, the drug stores, or the movie theater.”

In 1927, Alfred Hall invested in what was then called the Elm Theatre in Edgartown. “Of all the movie theatres on the Island, it was the nicest,” Mr. Hall said. “After that, my father began investing in adjacent properties to anything that my family owned.”

The family’s real estate investments expanded after Buzzy Hall married his late wife, Theresa.

“I married Scarlett O’Hara,” Mr. Hall said. “It’s in the land. So when we got married in 1958, the first thing she did was take her savings and buy a piece of property out in Katama, off Katama Drive.” He said Theresa paid $700 for the property.

“From there we began to pick up various pieces of property over the years. My wife was very conversant with the local folks. We started doing research in the courthouse, discovering all this property. Some of the property was owned by people who were very beholden to my father.”

Other properties were acquired by attending land and tax auctions. “We bought what nobody else wanted,” Mr. Hall said. “One here, a property there. We did our research and put down bids.”

Mr. Hall said he does not have an account of how many properties are owned by him or his family. He attributes the myriad amount to his and his wife’s early investments. “A lot of the notoriety is because my wife and I picked up so many little pieces,” he said. “So it makes a long list. It was a New England kind of experience. We made our mistakes and so on along the way, but it was all part of the experience.”

Establishing Trusts

Establishing trusts can, in cases where property values are high, lessen the tax burden for those who inherit them. Trusts can also have the additional benefit of helping to rationalize the management of the property, even before it passes to the next generation, by appointing a trustee who oversees care and maintenance.

In the case of the Hall family, several trusts have been established, including  Starbuck Hill Trust, Forsythia Trust, Seagate Realty, Wisteria Trust, and Lucky 7 Realty.

Mr. Hall says many of the trusts were established by his father, as part of a generation-skipping transfer, known as a Gallo Trust. “A Gallo Trust skips a generation,” he said. “All of the real estate my father acquired was entrusted in my sons’ names.”

In response to an article published on October 23, Ben Hall Jr., wrote in an email to The Times, “Lucky 7 prides itself on being a preservationist. Most of the mere handful of properties it owns in downtown Edgartown have had extensive repairs and renovations performed over the past few years. My grandparents, who formed Seagate Inc. in an estate planning effort in the mid-1980s, participated in saving a host of extremely important buildings in Edgartown, including the Harbor View, the Dr. Daniel Fisher House, and the North Water Street Corporation property, to name but a few. Lucky 7 likewise continues these efforts.”

Apart from this emailed explanation, Ben Hall Jr. would not comment further on his family’s real estate holdings.

The legacy

Asked about what he plans to do with their long list of properties, Mr. Hall said, “It’s a matter of time. You have to ask yourself, ‘do you have the time in your life to do it?’” He added that his interest in investing in real estate has waned over the years, long replaced by his love of film, among other interests.

Nonetheless, Mr. Hall said he would like to preserve what he described as his family’s legacy as conservationists on the Island. “A legacy is rewarding,” he said. “Not monetarily, necessarily, but you have the loyalty of your tenants, and if they’re pleased then we’re pleased.”

Mr. Hall said he and his family are looking for ways to manage the various properties, including the theaters. “We’re looking for somebody that has a business plan that could be successful,” he said. “The plan is to sell unproductive property and not commercial property although we’ll listen to anyone who comes by and makes an offer. But we’re not bidding against ourselves. Just the ground alone isn’t cheap.”

A bad rap

“We keep our traps shut,” Mr. Hall said about the negative attention he and his family have endured over the years.  “The cocktail crowd out there in West Chop were yip yapping and saying ‘oh, we should take their property for eminent domain,’ and so on and so forth. Or, ‘the whole Main Street is going to pot because the Capawock isn’t operational,’ which wasn’t the case. It was for other reasons. And other people knew better. We have to just put our noses to the grindstone and just keep going. We won’t let it tear us down.”

Comments

  1. I felt just kind of sad for Buzzy reading this. They are obviously in over their heads with maintaining the properties and he seems to think he is a victim of some conspiracy. His father had a vision and set him up in life and now he doesn’t want to admit defeat by selling them before he passes them on to his own children and grandchildren. He would rather be the owner of dilapidated ratholes than sell them and ensure the proceeds are passed on to his kin.

    Also, I have to think there was a typo in the first section-they must be property rich and cash poor. Well, yes this is because you do not know how to manage the property in a sustainable way. And I cannot believe he has the gall to complain about his tax bill…

    1. poor millionaire.
      what i can’t understand is how can one not make a go of it with a movie theatre on martha’s vineyard. people love going out to the movies. year round. kids, adults, families, date nights, visiting friends and relatives. plus he owns other money making businesses, real estate, parking lots and such. i just don’t get it. doesn’t anyone in the family know how to manage money? sell one or a couple of the properties. maybe dig up that money from the backyard and make some repairs on these very visible “eyesores”. this has been going on for decades. do they care about their island neighbors? meanwhile, mr. hall is waiting on his great-grandchildren?
      and we “don’t need to be” having active talks with the halls?
      i read it, but i don’t get it.

  2. Sell me the 30 ft by 150 ft piece of property that abuts me. Its unbuildable. But I would be interested in it. There are many such pieces scattered throughout the island. Ill bet in no time you would have the capitol to get things repaired.

    1. They have an empty buildable lot in our neighborhood where a house burned down. It’s near downtown Edgartown. If they put it on the market, it would be scooped up in an instant. And they’d make a good chunk of change on it. Their excuses don’t ring true.

  3. Here we are again, another year with no hope for these poor theaters. I can’t believe he loves these properties and his job. It’s sad people like him can be fortunate enough to possess so much and give back nothing but sass. Setting your grandchildren up for failure wont make us forget your “legacy”.

    1. “deter foot traffic” as if once you get to the Island and visit OB these two eyesores will stop you from walking to the other places in town. As long as they pay their taxes who cares. Focusing on creating year round opportunities is what will advance the community. That the bowling alley was able to get approved is the first in quite a few that need to send a message to potential investors Oak Bluffs in serious about getting things turned around.

  4. I wish the article had explored the residential rental properties which this family owns. Their conditions, the rents paid, and the number of people living in each unit would be an interesting exercise in cash flow arithmetic, and could have shed some daylight on slumlord issues on this island. My understanding is that the Halls have a corner on the “slumlord of MVI” title. Not only is the Hall family’s commercial real estate a blight on our Main Streets but I feel that their residential properties mar many neighborhoods and subject struggling tenants to substandard conditions. How about cleaning up or selling instead of allowing continuing deterioration?

  5. Thanks for the article. I needed a good laugh this morning. He wants to leave a ‘legacy’? Of what? I’d suggest a ‘followup’ article with photographs of their ‘featured properties’ that they own all over the Island. Then the readers can come to their own conclusion whether this a ‘legacy’ that you want to ‘preserve’ or just another chapter in bad management. I guess this is what happens when you inherit your wealth instead of working for it.

    1. Yes, unfortunately Buzzy doesn’t seem to understand that his grand kids will inherit a name that owns the reputation of being a slum lord on the island. Instead of the hovels and bad reputation, I’m sure they will wish he had sold them and just just given them a well invested bank account…

  6. They can say what they want, but it’s obvious that they really don’t care about the island or their neighbors.

  7. Mr. Hall’s perspective is very sad for all. It is not only unrealistic, it is not based in any sort of reality. I hope he will allow a trusted advisor to step in and make some wise decisions for himself, his family, and the larger community. Clearly, he is not seeing or hearing what others are trying to tell him.

  8. Reading Buzzy’s comments makes me feel like I’ve lost my mind.
    The property is now ‘beyond repair’? And whose fault would that be Buzzy?
    In the forty+ years I’ve been here I haven’t seen you do a lick of maintenance on the properties featured in the article. Now they are reaching the critical point where many are indeed beyond repair. Sadly, on this point I am in complete agreement.
    The town should turn a deaf ear to the Hall family’s ridiculous excuses and obfuscations. Steady, relentless pressure brought to bear will eventually get them to either maintain the properties or sell them. So far they have done neither.

  9. Just a matter of time. He will have to start selling property to pay his taxes. Thats how most land poor people on this island pay their bills.

  10. This is the kind of thing that gives nepotism a bad name…can we please retire feudalism as an economic system?

  11. I get the feeling old Buzzy is getting a little senile. Here’s an idea sell off some of these properties to owners who know who to get the highest and best use out of them. Right now all these properties in the metro area are an eyesore and resulting in a diminution to the rest of the surrounding area. Better yet I hope OB passes an ordinance dealing with the blight these properties are causing. I have a hard time feeling the least little bit of sympathy for a family that owns over $40m of property on MV. I wish the Hall’s would recognize and appreciate the responsibilities that go along with property ownership. They act as if they are doing all of us a favor by keeping these properties in their dilapidated states.

  12. Those of us who have grown up with these people know what is going on and we have absolutely no sympathy for them. Those who have actually rented from them very sadly know first hand.

  13. Instead of hounding people who want to fix up dilapidated properties, the selectmen should focus attention on these eyesores and others.

  14. I hope the purpose of this article isn’t to glorify the Hall’s. They own plots of land all over the Island, and in attempts to develop some parcels bully the nearby or abutting neighborhoods by filing frivolous lawsuits that go on for years. Don’t cry poverty in attempts to defend letting public properties go to rot. There must be plenty of money for all the lawyers they hire.

  15. It’s time to take a collective approach to addressing this ever present and growing concern. Every town and citizen on our Island is effected by the economic impact of abandoned commercial and residential properties, no matter who owns them. Perhaps the All Island Selectmen can put this on their agenda and develop a way to navigate a course toward finding a solution. Oak Bluff’s is working on enacting a minimum maintenance bylaw to deal with properties such as this but it may make sense to take an island wide approach to the matter. Something to think about…

    1. Would be nice if the County found some role in this too. We have a regional entity in the county yet they don’t take an active role in much of anything. The county could easily take the time to draft a warrant article for every town to review and bring in front of voters.

      Then again we all know the County’s ability to manage deteriorating properties, look at the courthouse.

  16. So I guess it’s a GOOD thing to say “Hey they don’t do this or that or whatever with their own PERSONAL PROPERTY that they Paid Real $$$ for, so WE are gonna take it it the name of whatever cause…” Get real, If you owned something and “They” took it from you by eminent domain or you endured years of petty character assassinations and jealousies, because of how you live or spent you time and money. Face it, The Hall Family has a lot more that many of us, They acquired it and reinvested and earned it, so (BE JEALOUS) but I have NEVER known them to live like kings or flaunt their wealth EVER. Be they miserly, or genuinely humble and charitable, doesn’t matter much to me. Ben Hall Sr. has MORE integrity in his little toenail than many of us will ever comprehend, let alone possess, and his late wife was an incredibly smart and charming woman. Leave them alone for Pete’s sake. Go pick on and gossip about somebody else, like the Gang at the MVC. You people have No shame ragging of The Hall Family, for What Reason? Ask yourselves, you should be ashamed.

    1. Property Rights used to mean something in this country, sadly everything is compromised in the name of progress or better business. Oh yeah, when I didn’t like what was happening in MY back yard, I SOLD OUT and took responsibility for My own happiness, I didn’t whine that “They” shouldn’t do that with their land.

      Never been happier since I left MV………

          1. It’s not worth going into it any further. Doesn’t seem you have the slightest grasp on the situation. This is not some declaration on private property rights or the constitution or whatever larger point you think this represents. Eminent domain has not been used in any form on any Hall property. These are bad community members and their actions have a negative impact on the community. Not everyone can get up and move when they don’t like what’s going on like you did. It’s the right and responsibility for people to complain about what they do not like and try to change things. That’s how society works.

          2. I never related taxes to how they are viewed by the community. And the taxes they pay help clean the streets in front of their unkept buildings, it helps pave the road in front of the theaters they haven’t painted in years-it helps bring business to them. Paying taxes is not charity, they benefit directly from that money.

          3. I’ve done without going to the halls theaters for years.
            Problem is if you fix them up people still won’t go for several reasons. 1) Not giving the halls MY money 2) we have a bowling alley to use in the future, 3) an Edgartown cinema exists and no money goes to the Halls 4) Paradise by the dash board lights has a moving theatre @ Tisbury Marketplace, 5) Thomas Bena runs a great film festival in (April I think), 6) Paradise runs one in September, 7) off island has moving theatres and the number one reason people still won’t go to the Hall theatre’s is (drum roll please) They’ll never open again.

          4. everyone and anyone can get up and move. In this day and age of Obama, the govt has money for peeps to do so.

    2. Escheat was a concept developed during feudal times to keep property productive. If a farmer let arable land sit unused, the over-lord would take the land away from the farmer and assign it to another.

      The current use of escheat is State governments want free money to use. To require a bank to close a saving accounts because granny set them up for her grand kids but didn’t update the passbooks is indefensible.

      This is closer to the original intent. A number of these properties are in business districts, their disuse and deterioration are detrimental to the surrounding businesses. The Halls clearly know which properties are of concern, the exact same ones are mentioned by Mr Hall. I would say the community IS speaking, Mr Hall isn’t listening.

  17. If the (possibly internecine) collective Hall family holds $40 million of real estate on Martha’s Vineyard, income from much of such would provide adequate funds for upkeep.

    Being ‘property poor’ does not relieve the Halls, or anyone else in the same situation, from reasonable caretaking.

  18. I am happy to see the overwhelming support for a tidy Vineyard Haven! I trust the “Selectpersons” from the Island will recognize the voice of the people and take meaningful action.

    One simple approach is to pass an Anti-Blight Ordinance as the thoughtful people in Westport, Ct did this pass fall. Through this ordinance the town can force negligent property owners to fix blighted properties that adversely affect nearby properties and pose health and fire threats.

    In addition to imposing fines, the town gains the right to coordinate the necessary repairs in return for a lien on the property.

    As a local property owner who is discussed by the Hall “legacy”, I recommend that citizens fully consider this approach.

    Best,

    J.P. St.Germain

    1. I think you meant overwhelming support for a tidy vineyard and not vineyard haven only. I believe several towns are in the process of following Westport but Wesport followed tisbury because in 2011 vineyard haven passed a vacant building by law and approved the the attorney general. Towns already have the power to do certain things but are hesitant, maybe with good reason, not sure.

  19. I worked for many years as a projectionist in Buzzy’s theatres. On several occasions in the dead of winter I ran a movie for a single person. Year after year in the winter we would stay open for the few that still loved the “big screen”. Sayings like “till you walk in his shoes” and “people in glass houses” come to mind for me. Very easy to sit home and complain I suppose.

  20. Im wondering if rhere is some kind of hoarding disorder going on here. Classic hoarding includes accumulating things you cant possibly take care of or afford, blaming everyone else when things come crumbling down around you, denial that there are any problems, always having a plan for everything youve accumulated, but rarely following through with it.