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Businessman, philanthropist gives resort credence

News that Dr. Kiran C. Patel plans to take over an ambitious resort project on Clearwater Beach brought instant credibility to a long-simmering plan.

Patel is widely known in Tampa Bay business and political circles as a quiet visionary, philanthropist and aggressive businessman.

A cardiologist and health care entrepreneur, Patel bought a small HMO in 1992 and built it into a $1-billion business with more than 400,000 members. He sold WellCare HMO to a group of New York investors in 2002.

"Anything he touches, they say, it turns to gold," said longtime friend and developer Dilip Kanji, president of Impact Properties Inc. "And I'm sure this will, too."

Patel now turns his attention to building a resort on Clearwater Beach.

The resort project was the brainchild of Clearwater hotelier Tony Markopoulos, who had planned to build a lavish 14-story, 425-unit hotel along S Gulfview Boulevard. Markopoulos sold the land for $40-million to Patel last Friday. Patel's representatives went before the Community Development Board Tuesday to present the project, which has met with objection from city officials over its size.

"I think something's going to happen," said Clearwater real estate broker Lee Arnold. "If Dr. Patel puts his mind to it, it'll happen. He's that kind of person."

Arnold, who serves with Patel as a University of South Florida trustee, said Clearwater Beach desperately needs an upscale resort to help lure small conventions to the area.

"It will dramatically change the future, if not the look and feel of Clearwater," Arnold said. "We need that energy, and he's the right guy."

Patel, 55, has made headlines in recent years for numerous philanthropic ventures.

He pledged $400,000 to help USF establish a charter school, and he donated $5-million for the naming rights of the new arts school at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. It will bear the name of his wife, Dr. Pallavi Patel.

"Dr. Patel's philanthropy is absolutely important to the Tampa Bay region," Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center president Judith Lisi. "They have become a model of philanthropy in their community."

Patel also has been generous with causes in India, helping to build several hospitals in that provide indigent health care and spearheading local efforts to raise money for earthquake victims. He pledged $50,000 to get things started.

Raised the son of an accountant in Zambia, Patel attended medical school in India, where he met his future wife, a classmate and now a pediatrician. They settled in New Jersey with their three young children and in 1982 moved to Tampa, where Patel's brother owned a motel.

Over the years, Patel has emerged as perhaps the most visible face of the burgeoning Indian-American community in Tampa Bay.

Patel donated the land for the Indian Cultural Center, and he helped to found five years ago the Indo-U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which now boasts more than 1,400 members in the Tampa Bay area.

"He is not only known for his ambitious business, but he is also very active politically and community-wise," Kanji said.

Patel has been a generous contributor to the Republican Party. He is active in several political action committees, Kanji said, and has developed relationships with numerous elected officials including Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed Patel a USF trustee in 2003.

Patel's high profile adds credibility to the resort project, said council member Frank Hibbard.

"I certainly think that Dr. Patel has standing in the community," Hibbard said.

The $40-million purchase price alone suggests commitment, said council member Carlen Petersen.

"That's a sign they're intent on going ahead with this," Petersen said.

Kanji says there's no doubt.

"(Patel) is 100 percent devoted," Kanji said. "I think they are going to change the skyline of Clearwater Beach."

Times staff writer Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report.