FLEMINGTON, NJ – He had just returned from Florida and was on his way to a funeral. But Steve Kalafer made time this afternoon for a free-wheeling, two-way conversation with local business leaders.
Kalafer, the founder and chairman of the Flemington Car & Truck Country and the founding chairman of the Somerset Patriots baseball team – along with a string of other notable accomplishments – clearly enjoyed speaking with the hometown crowd.
The event was part of the monthly Small Biz Networking Meetup, a group begun by Julie Parker more than six years ago. But her roots with Kalafer go back much further, to when he helped her establish her marketing business decades ago.
Kalafer seized the occasion to dispel a few persistent rumors.
Is he buying Liberty Village?
Is he buying Turntable Junction?
Is he bringing a Dave & Busters to Flemington?
But Kalafer did reflect on his real successes. “I started at 26 years old with a gas station in Frenchtown, New Jersey: Two gas pumps, three Pintos,” he said, as the crowd laughed at the Ford Pinto reference.
“I know,” Kalafer answered. “People laughed at the car then, too.”
Kalafer came to Flemington in 1979, he said, “and things worked out.” But, “I don’t have a secret sauce” to success, Kalafer said. “What I have is longevity.”
What motivated him in those early years?
Initially, “Fear of failure,” Kalafer said. “Fear of letting my family down. Fear of letting my associates down and fear of letting my community down.”
But Kalafer recognized that, “The world was not made for me. Whatever success is felt ... it has to be shared with the people who made that happen.” That includes not just those he works with, he said, but customers and community, too.
How has he survived all these years?
The ethos of his companies were marked on a coin which every attendee received. “Be kind,” it reads. “Be fair. Work hard. Earn money. Do good.”
“We take nothing for granted,” Kalafer said. “Everything changes. You’re entitled to nothing. You will get what you earn ... the definition of success is what you’ve accomplished with others, the fairness and equity with how you deal with people, and how you deal with adversity.”
And Kalafer has had his share of adversity. He recalled that it was 27 years ago last week that he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. That led to surgery, radiation and thousands of letters from people concerned about his well-being.
But Kalafer said he never asked himself, “Why me?”
Why not ask that question?
“On our best days, our most successful and happiest days ... we don’t say, ‘Why me?’ ” Kalafer reasoned. So it should be no different on the less happy occasions, he said.
In response to a question, Kalafer called the opioid epidemic a national security threat.
“The time for moralizing is over,” he said. “There’s a disconnect in our educational system. There’s a disconnect in our family system. There’s a societal disconnect and when that happens, some people need to medicate ... Let’s all understand that we are all unwilling co-conspirators to all of this and we have to deal with it.
“We are not being served by elected leaders,” Kalafer said. “Our elected leaders, whether on the national state or local level, have this figured out. They figured out that there is no penalty to them for doing nothing. They get the greatest benefits in the world, the greatest pensions in the world, and you’re worried about making payroll on Thursday.”
Bringing it to the local level, Kalafer praised the Raritan Township Committee. “But guess what?” he asked. “They’ll show up for a picture to be taken, but they will not take care of the opioid crisis. They will raise their hand and say, ‘The tax rate didn’t go up.’ ” But at the same time they preside over the increased assessment of properties in the township.
On the economy, Kalafer observed that New Jersey’s population is in decline, and Hunterdon has the “biggest outmigration of any county in the state,” he said. County schools see their enrollment also in decline.
“If that was a business, you’d say it was self-liquidating, that it’s going out of business,” Kalafer said. “Yet in every community in this county, they don’t want business. They don’t want ratables, they don’t want houses. They don’t want anything.”
Meanwhile, the situation only tends to worsen. “There is not an infrastructure of employers, to support the income, that’s needed to pay the (property) taxes. It’s that simple,” he said.
Kalafer, who said he’s as optimistic a person as ever existed and but who is also a realist, said the solution is to, “deal with what we have.
“Knock on doors. Control our own destiny. And don’t complain when you’ve done nothing.”
Bob Flisser of Flemington asked for Kalafer’s stance on Jack Cust’s proposal to re-develop the Union Hotel and surrounding properties.
“Flemington is in a death spiral,” Kalafer answered, adding that making such an observation is “a hard for me to say.”
The problem, he said, is “People need certainty. Not certainty of return on investment, (but) certainty of what a political body is going to do. Flemington has been completely uncertain ... It needs real development.
“They’re good people,” he said of borough officials. “I’m not questioning their motives. They believe in what they’re doing. I’m questioning their judgment.”
But Kalafer resisted the notion that Flemington’s future is hopeless. “It’s dying,” he said, reminding the crowd that he’s an optimist. “Hopelessness is when the rabbi and the priest come and say it’s hopeless.”
And in the end, Kalafer said he is just like everyone else who was in the room at Al Fresco’s restaurant today.
“I’m just like you,” Kalafer said. “I just have more cars than you.”