Roger Jakubowski: Hot Dog King Sees Green in Adirondacks
PAUL SMITHS, N.Y. (AP) _ Roger Jakubowski quit high school to peddle meat when he was 17, bought his first Rolls-Royce when he was 19 and went on to build a multimillion-dollar fast-food and pinball empire on New Jersey’s boardwalks.
Now, the 44-year-old entrepreneur has retreated from the coastal New Jersey fast lane and immersed himself in the wilds of northern New York’s Adirondack Mountains.
He hasn’t come for the quiet life in the woods, though, and he isn’t here for recreation. When Jakubowski gazes at the green forests and snow-silvered summits of the Adirondacks, he sees the green and silver of dollars and cents.
″The Adirondacks are fantastic - the best-kept secret in the United States,″ Jakubowski said during an interview at his new wilderness home, the palatial Camp Topridge built by the late cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post.
Jakubowski, who calls himself a ″normal, hardworking guy″ and a ″crazy Polish kid from Camden,″ has been raising eyebrows among North Country folks ever since he bought Topridge for $911,000 at a controversial state auction in 1985.
The 105-acre compound, with 45 elegantly rustic 19th century buildings perched on a wooded spine of land between two lakes, was given to the state by Mrs. Post’s heirs in 1974. Because the state Constitution’s ″Forever Wild″ clause prohibits sale of state-owned land within the 6 million-acre Adirondack Park, preservationists protested the auction.
″They thought I was going to put in high-rises here, or put in a motel or something,″ said Jakubowski, who agreed to strict limits on the property’s use as a condition of sale. ″As you can see, I’m just living here, minding my own business.″
This past summer, Jakubowski riled historians in Plattsburgh, on Lake Champlain, when he outbid the state and bought 40-acre Crab Island for $190,000.
The local historical society tried to get the state to seize the island from Jakubowski. They said selling Crab Island, the gravesite of 150 American and British sailors who died in a key battle of the War of 1812, was like selling Arlington National Cemetery.
″I just fell in love with it. I knew there was historical significance there, but I didn’t expect this uproar,″ said Jakubowski. ″I’m going to save it. I’m a man who saves everything.″
Jakubowski has bought a string of other properties in the Adirondacks, including a spring-water company on Lake Champlain; Plattsburgh’s WKDR radio station; Lake Ozonia in St. Lawrence County, where he says he plans to build vacation homes; a mile of Lake Champlain shoreline; a store in Saranac Lake; and the Big Tupper Ski Center.
″I’d like to buy the whole Adirondack Park,″ said Jakubowski, pacing animatedly before a blazing, cavernous stone fireplace. ″I say they’ll put it up for sale eventually.″
That would take an amendment to the state Constitution, which has protected the Adirondacks for more than a century.
Business and civic leaders in the economically depressed Adirondack region, where tourism is the main industry and unemployment rates run high, have welcomed Jakubowski’s money and enthusiasm.
″He’s inspirational. A good example,″ said Steve Ermann, economic development specialist for the Adirondack Park Agency, which regulates land- use in the region. ″A guy like Roger Jakubowski shows people the entrepreneurial spirit can work, and that maybe it can work for them too if they’re willing to take a risk and start a new venture. It’s very healthy for the park’s economy.″
Jakubowski is an informal, friendly man who dresses in jeans and sweaters, often answers his own phone. He detests television as a waste of time, and, despite the region’s attractions, he shuns hiking and skiing - ″I could break a leg, and then I couldn’t make money.″
His life story, recounted on radio talk shows and in the local press, has become familiar to many Adirondackers in recent months.
″I’ve always lived like a millionaire, since I was 17,″ said Jakubowski. ″I had two brand new Rolls-Royces when I was 19, with a chauffeur to drive one behind my meat truck while I made deliveries.″
He grew up in Camden, N.J., where his father sold butter. With a truck his father gave him, Jakubowski started his own marketing business, and had made so much selling imported meat that he retired at age 26 to become a ″beach bum″ in California.
He bought more flashy cars: a 1948 Delahaye owned by the Aga Khan; a Stutz Blackhawk that he later sold to Elvis Presley.
When his money ran low, he returned to New Jersey at age 31 and started buying hot dog stands on the boardwalks in Ocean City and Atlantic City. He later bought pinball arcades, restaurants, a hotel.
″I own a lot of real estate in southern Jersey,″ he said. ″I used to own all the Wendy’s restaurants, but I recently sold them. I want things that will make money without a lot of management.″
Jakubowski divides his time between a home in Vetner, N.J., and Topridge, which is north of Saranac Lake. As his Adirondack interests have grown, he says, he now spends 90 percent of his time at his northern address.
″Look at this place; it’s heaven,″ he said. ″I can think here. I have a clear head here. You need that in business.″
Jakubowski, who is divorced and has a 5-year-old daughter, lives at Topridge alone with a handful of employees.
He delights in showing off his high-tech stereo system and a selection of music from Mozart to movie soundtracks. ″You should see when I come out in my Darth Vader outfit for guests,″ he said, as the theme from ″Star Wars″ thundered from the rough-hewn rafters.
The stereo is one of few Jakubowski touches in the 20,000-square-foot main lodge. The place is a veritable museum of taxidermy, American Indian artifacts and rustic Adirondack furniture collected by Mrs. Post.
There are stuffed loons, herons, bear cubs, porcupines, golden and bald eagles, and the heads of deer, elk, moose, bison and antelope. Bearskin rugs adorn walls and floors, and furniture is upholstered in the furs of leopard, zebra, tiger, and pony. The lofty ceiling is hung with birchbark canoes, guide boats, antler chandeliers and snowshoes.
″I had an offer to sell this place for four times what I paid for it 90 days after I bought it,″ said Jakubowski. ″This is the greatest of the Great Camps. It’s worth $15 million easily; it would cost at least $50 million to re-create it today. I have an international real estate agency interested in listing it.″
But Jakubowski said he has no plans to move.
″I’m here forever,″ he said. ″I’ve traveled around the world; this is the best.″
End Adv Friday Dec. 5