At-risk youth attending the Police Athletic League of St. Petersburg may never experience Manhattan’s bustle and bright lights. However, one of New York’s most prominent businessmen is looking out for them from afar.
Billionaire John Catsimatidis Sr. has built a supermarket, real estate, media and finance empire in the Big Apple. He is also the developer behind the Sunshine City’s Residences at 400 Central, what will soon become the tallest tower on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Despite his success, Catsimatidis has remained true to his Harlem roots. The Greek immigrant and his wife, Margo, partnered with the St. Petersburg Police Department to help provide Christmas gifts for 70 children from 40 families.
“You know what I tell those kids? I came from the same place you guys came from,” Catsimatidis told the Catalyst. “And I succeeded, and you guys could succeed too.
“I think it’s important to give them the message that somebody cares, and we want to help them succeed.”
St. Pete PAL provides a safe and affordable place for out-of-school children. The nonprofit also thoughtfully designs programming to foster academic success, healthy lifestyle choices and productive adults.
Heather Robb, executive director, said the children each received about $400 in gifts Friday (Dec. 22) afternoon. Bicycles, hoverboards, radio-controlled cars, dolls and name-brand shoe boxes – many donated by Boss Law – were scattered across the gymnasium floor at the St. Pete PAL complex on 16th St. N.
The organization annually hosts a Christmas party for its at-risk youth, complete with a DJ, face painting, food and activities. Robb said four donor groups contributed to the event’s finale – opening presents.
However, she said the organization depleted a Christmas endowment last year. The Catsimatidis family filled the gap and were supposed to personally deliver presents until a winter storm postponed the event, originally to take place Dec. 16.
“I think it says a lot when people who are moving into St. Petersburg become part of the community and give back to the community …,” Robb said. “Times are tough for everybody, especially some of our families.
“A lot of the parents expressed so much gratitude because they said these are the only gifts their kids are getting this holiday season.”
While the event is “a lot of work,” Robb said it fills her and everyone inside the building with joy. SPPD Officer Clark called the occasion bittersweet.
He is leaving St. Pete PAL after a two-year post to become a detective in the SPPD’s human trafficking unit. The bonds he created will remain. A boy sheepishly handed Clark a Christmas card as he collected discarded wrapping paper.
Clark called watching disadvantaged children open gifts – and knowing the department played a significant role – an “amazing feeling.”
“I’ll miss these guys for sure – they’ve had a big impact on my life,” Clark added. “I want to keep my face close by so they remember me and don’t think that Officer Clark was someone who just came for a little bit and left,” he added.
Clark also thanked the donors and people who helped uplift at-risk youth this holiday season. “You can hear it and see it … these kids are happy and ecstatic to be opening these gifts, and they wouldn’t be able to do it without everybody involved,” he said.
Born on the Greek island of Nisyros, Catsimatidis immigrated to New York with his family six months later. He proudly grew up on 135th Street, a predominantly Black area in Harlem.
Catsimatidis went on to launch a supermarket chain and the Red Apple Group, which boasts over 8,000 employees across multiple industries. He also found time to volunteer with the Police Athletic League (PAL) of New York City for 40 years.
Catsimatidis is now the organization’s chairperson. He wants disadvantaged youth to know the “American dream is alive – it’s not dead.”
Catsimatidis will split time in St. Pete when 400 Central opens in early 2025. His wife’s family moved to the area over 40 years ago, and Catsimatidis said he considers residents his family.
The couple’s local philanthropy has contributed to the St. Petersburg Pier’s “Bending Arc” sculpture, multiple St. Petersburg Museum of History exhibits, the Greek and Russian Orthodox Church, the Florida Holocaust Museum and the Poynter Foundation.
Catsimatidis said that, unlike other developers, he is “not the type that leaves. St. Pete is going to be my community.”
He has also tasked Kevin King, Red Apple Real Estate’s director of Florida Operations, with finding additional local development opportunities. Catsimatidis anticipates “pressing the button” now that interest rates are dropping.
King, former Mayor Rick Kriseman’s chief of staff, watched as dozens of St. Pete PAL children ripped open their presents. He noted that “John and Margo’s passion for our community and spirit of giving” has made his job more rewarding.
“It’s like working for Santa, especially this time of year,” King added. “And I mean that.”