We’re asking thought leaders, business people and creatives to talk about 2022 and give us catalyzing ideas for making St. Pete a better place to live. What should our city look like? What are their hopes, their plans, their problem-solving ideas? This is Catalyze 2022.
The number one need for St. Petersburg in 2022, Mario Farias believes, is a re-dedication to the little guy, the essential building block in any community. “We need to focus our attention on the housing needs for our essential workers,” says the eco developer, consultant, investor and restaurant group partner. “And if we don’t do that, we’re going to lose not only the charm, but we’re going to lose the momentum of what St. Petersburg has.”
The CEO of Farias Consulting says embracing the YIMBY (“Yes in My Backyard”) point of view is essential for positive growth. “We have to be able to build some multi-family homes along the corridors – where you could put two, three, four units on a lot; it would help increase the housing stock. At a reasonable rate,” he said.
It’s not the most profitable way to do things in this day and age, Farias knows, but it’s both logical – and decent. “You can put up one home in a place for $350,000, or you can put up two homes, or three, in the place for $350,000. It sure makes a big difference.
“That’s the first thing I would like to see the City of St. Petersburg grab ahold of: ‘OK, you want to put up 300 apartments? Then let’s make 25 percent of them workforce, or 20 at least.’ To make sure that we keep those essential workers.”
If the affordable housing crisis is not dealt with, Farias said, then St. Petersburg as we know it will cease to exist. If essential workers can’t afford to live in the heart of the city, they’ll move further west, or further north. And they’ll find jobs closer to their homes.
Which, he reasons, will only make the current labor shortage worse. “Before you know it, those will be the centers of commerce. And so all this momentum we’re building in downtown St. Petersburg is going to start not having the same impact, because we don’t have the people to service it.”
As managing director of the small group that owns The Big Catch at Salt Creek, Farias sees, on a daily basis, the struggles that essential workers, and those in the service industry, are enduring.
He’s also a part owner on nearly six acres of property in Commerce Park; he and his partners are currently considering its best possible use.
Farias’ dedication to his adopted hometown is deeply-rooted. His father, Mario Farias Sr., was a Portuguese immigrant who owned both the Astor Hotel and Mike’s Happy Lounge/Mario’s Bar downtown.
“We came to the city when I was 10 years old,” said Farias. “My parents worked hard. That was when the city was a seasonal place, where there was only a little business going on for five months out of the year. And the other seven months were sort of stagnant. But they eked out a great living for us.
“The city educated my brother and I, and set us along our paths. I took an entrepreneurial path, and my brother took up education, as a teacher at St. Pete High. For us to be able to see this city grow, and know that my father played a part in it, and we’re playing a small part in it … it leaves a great legacy for my son, and for my grandchildren.
“People behind the scenes make St. Petersburg what it is, not just the big-time developers or the elected officials. It’s the small business people. The consumers. The guy that rides his bicycle to work. That’s who makes St. Pete great.”
Farias is happy to put 2021 in his rear-view mirror – and not merely because of Covid, which has made much of life miserable for just about everyone on every playing field.
Ex-NFL football star Vincent Jackson, Farias’ friend and co-partner in the Callaloo Group, died last February at the age of 38.
He’s still not over the shock. “We did everything together,” Farias said. “We talked about everything. He fueled me, and I fueled him, to get it done. And our other partners.
“On personal level, it devastated me. I lost one of my mentors in late 2020, and I was already reeling. And to lose Vincent, it was a one-two punch. I got pretty disheartened over everything. It was probably one of the toughest times since losing my father.”