Hall family’s crumbling empire weighs on towns

Hall family’s crumbling empire weighs on towns

by -
41
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.”