March 11, 2001, Sunday
NEW JERSEY WEEKLY DESK
IN PERSON; From Chicken Coops to a Fortune
By CAREN CHESLER (NYT) 1641 words
MIROSLAV KOKES left his parent's country villa and walked along a roadside, trying to hitch a ride back to Prague. It was 1946, and there were few cars left after the Nazis had confiscated most of them years earlier. Now the Russians occupied Czechoslovakia, and gas was scarce.
A Russian soldier on a motorcycle pulled over and told Mr. Kokes to hop on. He clutched the soldier around the waist, and looked on as the soldier eyed his wristwatch. The soldier asked if he could have the watch, but then changed his mind, saying it was too ordinary. With that, Mr. Kokes told him the watch was waterproof and when they stopped, he dipped it in a brook as proof. Soon, Mr. Kokes was driving off on the motorcycle, leaving the Russian at an army barracks, proudly wearing his new watch.
It was the first of many deals for a man who would land in America penniless and become one of New Jersey's most prolific housing developers. Mr. Kokes (pronounced COKES) began by building chicken coops and went on to put up thousands of single-family homes for the elderly in the middle of New Jersey's Pinelands. And to serve them, he built shopping centers, service stations and medical complexes, creating a flourishing community where there was once just pine trees, sand and scrub. Today his signature development, Crestwood Village, is listed on Hagstrom's map of New Jersey.
''They all thought he was crazy,'' said Jan Kokes, the developer's son, who runs the company. ''There was nothing there and he built a city. It was a gutsy move.''
Mr. Kokes was born in Czechoslovakia in 1921, the son of a wealthy property owner. He summered at his family's four-story villa and attended ballroom dancing classes, where men wore tuxedos and women arrived with chaperones. It was at such a class in 1941 that he met his wife, Irene. He later divorced her and remarried.
The main source of his father's income was a spa in the middle of Prague frequented by the city's gentry. But shortly after the Communists took over the government in 1945, a commissar marched into the elder Kokes's place of business and gave him four hours to either leave the country or be shot. It was an easy choice; he fled to Germany.
A year or two later, the younger Mr. Kokes -- still in Prague -- was warned by a policeman, ''Don't sleep home tonight.'' With that, he hastily packed up his wife and two sons, leaving money and jewels behind in a safe. They drove to the Sudetenland, where they met up with a smuggler who took them to the German border. Mr. Kokes carried his older son, Jan, on his back and his younger son, Jerry, in his arms as the five trekked through the mountains of Bavaria for 12 hours.
The family spent two years moving from one refugee camp to another, and it was in one of them that Mr. Kokes stumbled on a book called ''Egg and I,'' a guide to chicken farming. He decided to become a farmer.
''What happened over there was crazy,'' Mr, Kokes said. ''It was absolutely crazy. We were running away from these vicious people. It was in our minds that instead of dealing with people, we were going to deal with chickens, with animals.''
When he arrived in America in 1949, Mr. Kokes spoke five languages -- although English was not one of them. The family settled in the Bayside section of Queens, N.Y., the home of a Czech immigrant who sponsored the Kokes's. For the first sixth months, Mr. Kokes would arise at 5 a.m. and walk to his job digging ditches for 10 hours a day, at the end of the week bringing home $60. Next he found a job waiting tables at the University Club in Manhattan, and he found a house that could be purchased without a down payment because termites had eaten through some of the support beams and the porch had nearly collapsed. Mr. Kokes and his father worked on the house on weekends, and soon he sold it for a $5,000 profit, which he used to buy 10 acres of land in Howell. In 1952, he began a chicken farm.
Trained as an architect and an engineer, Mr. Kokes built his own chicken coops, which became the envy of other farmers. His coops used plastic panels that allowed the sun to shine through in the winter yet keep the coops cool in summer. In addition, they required less wood, making them cheaper to build. Soon, other farmers wanted Mr. Kokes to build their coops.
He began with 200 chickens, but over the next three years his stock grew exponentially. But the price of eggs dropped and Mr. Kokes, an asthmatic, developed pneumonia from the feathers and the dust.
''By the time Americans began panicking about cholesterol, I had 8,000 chickens,'' he commented.
In 1957, he sold the chicken farm and the coops and began building houses instead. Then, in 1962, his life changed.
Mr. Kokes attended a seminar at Rutgers, where a speaker said the elderly population in New Jersey was expected to explode over the next several decades -- and that affordable housing would be sorely needed. A year later, he went into partnership with a friend, Irving Zimmerman, who owned 150 acres of land in Manchester, and the two men set out to build a 1,000-unit adult retirement community in the woods. Mr. Zimmerman put up the land, Mr. Kokes put up $20,000 and a bank put up another $10,000. They called the project Crestwood Village.
''We started to sell, and everyone was laughing at us because we were selling houses in the middle of nowhere,'' he said.
Halfway through the project, Mr. Zimmerman got cold feet and wanted out. The company sold 73 houses in the first year by advertising in German newspapers, but they could not build homes fast enough, and people wanted their deposits back. They had built only nine homes before Mr. Kokes bought Mr. Zimmerman out and paid him $200 a week until he died in 1977.
''He was nervous to get into the building business,'' Mr. Kokes said. ''He was a house painter. I had built houses before.'
He counted on the notion that the elderly needed affordable housing and did not want to pay high property taxes to finance schools. And he knew local governments did not like housing developments because they attracted young parents with children. He set the minimum age for residents at 65 -- later lowered to 55 -- and permitted children only for short visits.
Over the next 20 years, he would construct more than 17,000 houses, apartments and mobile homes, 60 miles of road, two service stations, four shopping centers, an assisted living complex, andtwo medical centers; he also helped start a bank. He donated land to the Kimball Medical Center, and gave property to Manchester Township for a new town hall as well as land for a cemetery.
Mr. Kokes's single-family homes sold for $6,300. Today, they sell for as much as $50,000. At Lake Ridge, a more upscale development on a golf course in Lakewood, the houses are larger and cost about $200,000. The minimum age there is 49.
''I was an exception,'' Mr. Kokes -- with his cherubic face, little jowels, round glasses, and a shock of slate-colored hair that swoops across his forehead -- said in his thick Czech accent. ''Everyone likes to build bigger houses, because they can make more money. My theory was I wanted to make small houses, for little people.''
Mr. Kokes, along with couple of other developers, have turned Ocean County into a Sun City of the East. At last count, there were 59,246 houses or apartments in 83 different communities for the elderly, according to the Ocean County Office of Senior Services. In Manchester, where he built most of his houses, 75 percent of the population is over age 64.
Jan Kokes says his father -- who bet everything he had on a hunch without so much as a market study -- was a visionary.
''When we came into Whiting, there were 26 people living in the whole town,'' the younger Mr. Kokes said. ''There was nobody there. We came in and built everything.''
His son had just graduated from college when Mr. Kokes asked him to help build Crestwood Village.
''He said, 'We have 500 homes to build.' Then, that was unheard of. That would be like saying 5,000 homes today. He said I could take off after that.''
He never left. While the elder Mr. Kokes maintains an office in Whiting, his son is president of the Kokes organization.
Now 79 and semi-retired, Mr. Kokes's memory has a few holes. He remembers that the bank he helped found, Garden State Bank, was bought by Summit Bank and the shares of stock he was given split and netted him $12 million. But he doesn't remember when that happened. He also recalls that when he and a former partner of 20 years, Herbert Wishnick, had a falling out, Mr. Wishnick paid him $20 million for his stake. But he doesn't recall when Mr. Wishnick died, though he vividly remembers the day the commissar threatened his father's life. It was 10 a.m., he said, and his father was given until 2 p.m. to leave Czechoslovakia.
''Over there, my father had a nice business and he was quite rich,'' Mr. Kokes said. ''But he never had this kind of money. I kiss the ground I'm walking on that they let me come to this country.'
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