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Monday, Nov 24, 2014
South Tampa News

O'Neill: Indian community key in getting Bollywood awards


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When those "Bollywood Oscars" are given out next June in Tampa, one should be set aside for key locals of Indian birth and ancestry. Call it: "Best Supporting Community."

Because of our history, geography, politics and familiar demographics, when we reference minority communities, we're typically talking about African-Americans and Hispanics. But the Indian community, more entrepreneurial than most and more than 25,000 strong in the Tampa Bay region, is an increasingly active and influential player. Its contribution in revenue to the local economy is estimated at $3 billion. It's a lot more, to be sure, than just Kiran Patel, the über-involved cardiologist-entrepreneur-philanthropist.

In this case, it was a key coterie of Indian-Americans, including Dr. Patel.

It was critically important that Tampa is the home of the Indo-U.S. Chamber of Commerce and that the chamber, whose president is Darshna Patel, has been sponsoring an annual India International Film Festival right here in Tampa. The founder of the IIFF is Francis Vayalumkal, a past president of the Indo-U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"One of the things we want to do is put Tampa on the map internationally," Vayalumkal told The Tampa Tribune. "... We want to make Tampa Bay a destination for the film industry, and (the IIFF) event is a great opportunity to showcase everything we have to offer."

But no one was more catalytic to the effort than local realtor Chetan Shah, Dr. Patel's brother-in-law. It was Shah who initially contacted the International Indian Film Academy about bringing its three-day "Bollywood Oscars" gala to the Tampa Bay area. It was in Singapore last year and earlier this month in Macau, a special administrative region of China. Other bidders for 2014 included Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Melbourne - the one in Australia.

It was also Shah who reached out to Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, a supporter of international trade who has had previous contacts with the Indian community over a search for viable cricket venues. That led to Visit Tampa Bay and its international-oriented president, Santiago Corrada, and then to Visit Florida. That resulted in on-site visits by IIFA representatives checking out Tampa. It all culminated in the privately financed, 18-member delegation that successfully pitched Tampa in Macau.

But nothing would have happened without key members of the local Indian-American community thinking beyond their own culture to the enlightened self interest of the Tampa Bay market. The eight-figure financial coup is expected to generate upwards of 24,000 hotel room nights next June - during the off-season. The IIFA awards weekend drew a reported 30,000 visitors and more than 500 journalists to Singapore in 2012.

The bottom line is that this is the sort of mega-international exposure that's impossible anywhere outside an Olympiad. The "Bollywood Oscars" draws more than 800 million TV viewers. It's also direct contact with the world's second-most populous country and is rife with business - including film making - and tourism potential. Most visitors will be seeing our airport, port, universities, waterfront and beaches for the first time. Global spotlights matter.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who knows there would be no big "Bollywood" bash here had last summer's GOP convention been marred by security incidents, can now anticipate another building block in the area's ongoing outreach.

"It confirms what we've known all along, and this is we're ready for prime time," he underscored. "We can compete for these international and global events and we can win."

And we can thank an activist Indian-American community for making this one happen.

Change coming in Cuba relations

When it comes to Cuba, Miami and Tampa are generally poles - or embargo perspectives - apart. Miami has next-generation exiles, Tampa has descendents of tobacco workers. Miami has a vendetta agenda, Tampa envisions unfettered trade and travel scenarios. Miami has Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Tampa has Kathy Castor.

But as sure as the Castro brothers' days are numbered, change is inevitable. It's more than negotiations about resuming direct mail service and an agreement to resume bilateral talks on migration issues. And at some point the Alan Gross/"Cuban Four" intelligence-agents standoff will be seen as the low-hanging, geopolitical fruit that it is.

But for now, the two markets eye each other warily. That was reflected recently in a lengthy Miami Herald piece by Eric Barton of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. It took a close look at the five-day, 37-person delegation of Tampa business leaders and political officials that traveled to Cuba last month and noted "there was no mistaking that the trip was about promoting Tampa as Cuba's future trading partner." Tampa politicians, added Barton, "talk of expanding direct flights to Havana. They want to be home to cruise ships that call to Cuban cities. And they imagine the port of Tampa becoming the main hub of goods heading to the island once the embargo is lifted."

There was no mistaking the theme: Tampa business and political leaders want to exploit Miami's ideologically counterproductive approach to Cuba. Little Havana has noticed - but is unmoved.

Among those quoted: City Council member Mary Mulhern, who publicly opposes the economic embargo and has been to Cuba three times, and Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Bob Rohrlack. His unequivocal response to a query about whether Tampa is positioning itself for advantageous, post-embargo opportunities in Cuba: "Hands down. Absolutely."

Rohrlack also could have added - but why rub it in - "Thanks again, Miami. Stay the course."

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