Hey, remember David Hall? The Mormon millionaire who’s been buying property in the Tunbridge/Royalton area, with an eye toward building a planned community based on ideas from Mormon church founder Joseph Smith?
Yeah, that guy.
All it takes is one massive fraud scandal to wipe everything else off the news agenda, doesn’t it?
Well, I have some unfinished business with said Mormon, David Hall by name. On Thursday, April 7, I was guest host on “Open Mike,” WDEV Radio’s local talk show. In the first hour, I interviewed Mr. Hall about his plans. We had a lively and thoughtful discussion that shed substantial light on his plan. (The interview is archived here.)
You may recall that I wrote about his plan shortly after it became public knowledge — a nice little ready-fire-aim masterpiece entitled “The Mormons are Coming! The Mormons are Coming!”
In light of our interview, I feel compelled to give a fuller account of his plan and my views. So here we go.
My thesis was based on (1) a Mormon from Utah wanting to build a planned community (2) near the birthplace of Joseph Smith (3) based on Smith’s writings. That led me to conclude that this was a fundamentally Mormon project, and its residents would likely be Mormon. As many as 20,000 of ’em in a sparsely-populated area, capable of wielding substantial economic, social, and political power.
My logic wasn’t unreasonable, but my conclusions were off the mark. Mr. Hall is indeed Mormon, but he has very strong feelings about exclusionary communities. He thinks they’re a really bad idea. And although his idea springs from the mind of Joseph Smith, it wasn’t Smith the religious visionary, it was Smith the social thinker.
He lived in a time, you may recall, when new radical communities were quite the thing in America. Utopian visions, some realized and some not, were a natural outgrowth of the still very young American experiment.
Smith’s outline of planned, sustainable communities was never pursued by the Mormons. It sat, undisturbed, in Smith’s voluminous papers for a long time.
David Hall came across the idea, and was inspired to make it the focus of his life’s second act. Hall is an businessman and inventor who made his fortune in the back end of the oil and mineral business: he made equipment used by the extraction industries. He is now 69 years old, and his net worth reportedly runs into nine figures. But he told me he intends to die broke, with all his money going into the nonprofit NewVista Foundation, the vehicle for his dream of sustainable communities around the world.
His notion of a Vermont community is resolutely secular. The residents would be primarily Vermonters, drawn by the promise of a new way of living. The community would not be completely self-sustaining; but much of the economic activity would take place within the community. Everyone would be expected to work, and resources would be shared. It’s a difficult-to-categorize mix of capitalism and communalism.
Do I think it’ll ever happen? I think the odds are long against it. Even if you’ve got an authentically better idea, it’s awfully difficult to break established patterns of living. But Hall is planning in terms of decades, not years; he doesn’t expect to see any communities founded in his lifetime. The Foundation is designed to carry on the work after he’s gone.
At times, Hall strikes me as a bit naive. He was surprised that his land purchases caused such a stir in the area. In retrospect, he wishes he had announced his intentions sooner. He is trying to make up for lost time by communicating openly and frequently with local officials and residents.
Which is totally appropriate. He has become a substantial landholder in four small towns, and is aiming to buy more. Even without the utopian vision, people are naturally curious/concerned about his intentions. So, if there’s not going to be a planned community for decades at best, what happens to it in the meantime?
Hall intends to make the land productive, mainly as farmland and woodlots. As he explained, much of the land is fallow because it’s not financially worthwhile to farm or harvest timber. He doesn’t expect to make a profit on the land, so he can bypass those economic realities. The aim is that the land will be leased (at reasonable rates) to those willing to work it in sustainable ways.
Which then raises the question: if the land is owned by a nonprofit foundation, is it coming off the local tax rolls? The answer is no. Here’s how he explains his position in an email:
I am personally against tax exempt status of foundations and governments and churches.We All need to pay taxes or we will end up with such high taxes on a few that the underground economy will take over .
There’s something you don’t hear from a Mormon every day.
So, out of principle, he will retain title to the land. He won’t hide it behind the nonprofit wall. Which is good news for the local communities.
After speaking with David Hall for an hour, I no longer see him as a religious fanatic looking to establish Mormon outposts. He’s a dreamer with the resources to try to make his dream come true, even if it happens long after his death.
As I said, I don’t think it’s going to happen. But I wish him luck.