St. Petersburg is a city built on a peninsula. With few options to expand outward, new developments are growing upward instead.
One project is set to soar above the rest on St. Petersburg’s burgeoning skyline: 400 Central Avenue. The condo and office tower being built in the heart of downtown will top out at 46 stories, making it the tallest building on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
When he pitched the idea in 2019, “everyone thought I was crazy,” said John Catsimatidis Sr., the building’s developer with Red Apple Group. It certainly wasn’t a first for the 74-year-old billionaire.
Born on the small Greek island of Nisyros and raised on the streets of Harlem, Catsimatidis made his fortune through grocery and gas stations before diving into the cut-throat world of New York real estate.
In his hometown, Catsimatidis has earned a reputation as a firebrand who loves to stir the pot on his radio show, The Cats Roundtable. He was an early supporter of President Donald Trump and had political ambitions of his own – running for Mayor of New York in 2009 and 2013.
In this interview, Catsimatidis discusses his plans for 400 Central, explains why he’s betting big on Florida and shares advice from his new memoir, ‘How Far Do You Want to Go?: Lessons from a Common-Sense Billionaire.’
How did you go from running grocery stores to investing in real estate?
I started in the supermarket business because I was able to start with just $10,000. After I had about 10 stores, I realized that no matter how successful your business is, if you didn’t own the real estate... Guess what? You don’t have anything.
I started buying up real estate in 1977. If you remember, in ‘77 it felt like the world was coming to an end in New York. I didn’t know any better. So I started buying up real estate with the theory that if I can’t find a tenant I’ll just open up a supermarket.
I put about $5 million into real estate to start. About four or five years later, that $5 million was worth $100 million.
You’ve made a name for yourself in New York. Why did you decide to take on Florida and more specifically, St. Petersburg?
My wife is from Indianapolis. Her parents moved out to St. Petersburg in 1980. So we’ve been going to St. Petersburg to visit them for over 40 years.
Her father always said to me, you have to invest here. So finally I listened.
I’ve always liked St Petersburg. They say that there’s 361 days of sunshine out of 365. In 100 years we’ve only had two hurricanes. They say it’s because of an old Indian rock or something like that. When a hurricane comes to the St. Petersburg area, it zigs left or zags right.
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I felt it was time to start to invest in Florida because I’ve reduced my investments in New York. I’m concerned about New York. Hundreds of thousands of people are moving out of New York. In Florida it’s the other way around. People are coming here. The Governor and the CFO are telling people ‘come on down,’ and people are listening.
Tell me about your vision for this building. Was your goal always to build the tallest tower on the gulf coast?
My goal was to build the tallest tower. I had arguments with my own people about putting an observatory where people can go up and look at the stars, look at the moon and fall in love again.
This will be a “wow” building. Meaning when you look at it, you say “wow.” I do not cut corners. You know there’s a lot of builders that cut corners. But when I look at the building I want to be proud of it.
I bought the penthouse.
This project was approved in 2019 and the real estate market has obviously changed a lot since then. How are you feeling as you get closer to the grand opening?
We are selling so fast. I’m very proud of the building. I’m very proud of our sales staff. We’re moving at a speed that we’re very happy with. We’re considering raising the prices because it’s selling so fast.
You encountered some protestors a couple of years ago at the groundbreaking of 400 central. What would you say to longtime St. Petersburg residents who are wary about the pace of development taking place in the city?
I think we’re trying to create wonderful things for the city. I’m proud of St. Pete because I’ve been going there for 40 years.
And if there’s opposition, guess what? Somebody’s going to lose. It’s not going to be me. We can build someplace else.
Some residents fear that St. Petersburg is becoming out of reach for lower and middle income people. What direction do you see the city moving?
I think you’re going to have a great city where there’s an affordable area to live, there’s a middle class area to live and there’s a high-end area to live. I think all big cities need that to be successful.
If you have nobody on the high end paying taxes and creating jobs, then the city loses out.
I’m sure you’ve heard some Floridians say they don’t want their state to turn into New York. What’s your response to that as a New Yorker who has championed Florida?
I love Florida and I hope the New Yorkers that come here don’t ruin Florida like they’ve ruined some areas of New York.
A lot of people are moving towards other areas where it’s safe. People want to feel safe. They don’t want to be in places like New York where the criminals rule.
What’s next for you? Do you see yourself doing more projects in the Tampa Bay area?
We are looking to build more. We want to cooperate with the people who live here, and with public officials in the area. We want to create value in the area.
If high-income individuals come into the city, they spend money in restaurants. They spend money on taxi cabs and Ubers. They spend mone on everything. It’s a matter of spending money.
What advice do you have for up and coming entrepreneurs?
We are in the land of opportunity. If you keep your nose clean and work hard you can become successful.
In my book we talk about what it takes for kids to become successful. I’m hoping that fathers and grandfathers will buy the book to give it to their kids and grandkids.