Saturday, February 24, 2018
Business

Bollywood deemed success for Tampa

TAMPA — Ravish Agarwal flew into town from a home in the U.S. Virgin Islands with tickets for the 15th annual International Indian Film Academy Awards. He spent just two days in Tampa.

Long enough, it seems, to consider Tampa as a potential home.

"Tampa is a beautiful city. I love it," said Agarwal, 58, as he waited for a flight home at Tampa International Airport on Sunday. "I was telling my wife this is a place to retire, actually. Life is very calm and quiet. No rush, no traffic jam."

Talk like that quickens the pulse of Tampa's political and business leaders who hoped to sell the Tampa Bay brand to an audience from around the world. As Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn noted, the world knows Orlando and Miami.

He said Tampa has "been somewhat a faceless, nameless place in the eyes of the world."

And the four-day event, which culminated with the award show Saturday, appeared to go off with few problems, organizers said.

"I never had any doubt we could do it," Buckhorn said. "But to see it all come together flawlessly, I feel today like I felt the Sunday after the (2012 Republican National Convention). I got a chance to see the city rise to the occasion with the world watching and absolutely hit it out of park."

But building an international brand for Tampa, he said, will take a focused effort over a period of years. "It's not just one event," Buckhorn said.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, one of the local leaders who spearheaded efforts to bring Bollywood to Tampa, said crowd estimates for IIFA's show Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium fell between 28,000 to 30,000.

That figure could not be confirmed on Sunday, with organizers saying at least 25,000 people attended.

"It opens doors for us as a community," Higginbotham said. "It tells the world who we are."

Andre Timmins, a founder and director of IIFA's parent company, Wizcraft International Entertainment, based in Mumbai, said his company was impressed with Tampa and was pleased with the results.

"From our perspective, we were very happy," Timmins said. "First of all, it didn't rain. As usual, it was sunny Florida."

He noted that IIFA may not have come to Tampa had the city not had the track record of hosting the RNC.

"With these kind of events coming in here to Tampa, it is just a track record" that will help the city win other events in the future, Timmins said.

"Ultimately, what we set out to achieve happened," he said. "Tampa rocked."

No one's sure what the long-term effect of the Bollywood invasion might be on the region.

Nitish and Shephali Rele have already seen extra exposure for their Tampa-based monthly newspaper, Khaas Baat, but it's difficult to know how that will play out.

Nearly a decade old, the statewide Khaas Baat draws its advertising support from a predominantly Indian-American cast of business owners and professionals.

Rele wonders: Will the exposure bring in non-Indian advertisers? "We are hoping we will see some results of this event down the road," he said.

Key to landing the awards was the support of Tampa cardiologist, businessman and philanthropist Kiran Patel, who put up his own money to make the event possible.

"There were many skeptics, there were many people who thought this cannot be pulled off, but it happened," Patel said. IIFA recognized Patel and his wife, Dr. Pallavi Patel, with an award Saturday for "outstanding contribution by an Indian in the U.S."

IIFA visitors were expected to account for 10,000 to 12,000 hotel room nights in Hillsborough County.

Visit Tampa Bay president and CEO Santiago Corrada said it may be late May before hotel tax receipts are tabulated. But he expects a good economic impact.

"I can tell you a lot of people were here spending money," said Corrada, who spent time at a downtown hotel observing. "I sat in the lobby and saw people with lots of bags of clothing and toys. They were out at the mall. They're dropping their money here."

As for Agarwal, the Virgin Islands resident of Indian descent, he said he has now narrowed his retirement choices to either Tampa or Atlanta. He really liked the uncrowded highways, though he has not seen Interstate 275 at rush hour.

But Buckhorn said, compared with India's densely populated Mumbai, Tampa traffic is a breeze.

"I'd take 275 any day of the week," Buckhorn said.

Times staff writers Richard Danielson and Patty Ryan contributed to this report.

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