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By all accounts, Tampa landed the 2014 Bollywood Oscars because a Hillsborough County delegation flew to the Chinese island of Macau last July to make its pitch during the 2013 event.
The 30-hour trip was especially hard on County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who is paralyzed from the waist down and walks with the aid of crutches.
“That’s tough on somebody that has a healthy body; that’s a tough flight for me,” said Santiago Corrada, executive director of the tourism group Visit Tampa Bay, who accompanied Higginbotham to Macau and later to India.
But Higginbotham, 59, didn’t flinch when he learned officials with the International Indian Film Academy wanted the county delegation to see the awards ceremony in person.
He packed up his wheelchair, strapped on extra-heavy leg braces and took medicine for blood clots that can develop in his legs on a long flight.
Then, the meetings started — from the night they landed through the next day except for a four-hour break at 3 a.m.
“I never left the hotel,” Higginbotham said with a grin.
The story of how Higginbotham helped secure a glamorous international event that’s expected to attract 30,000 visitors is an unlikely one — almost as far-fetched as the selection of Tampa as the first U.S. city to host this coveted tourism prize.
It started when Higginbotham, born and raised in rural Plant City, attended his first Tampa India Festival. He was making a presentation and planned to stay 45 minutes.
But the exotic costumes, lively music and family friendly atmosphere enchanted Higginbotham. He called his wife, Devon, and asked her to join him. They stayed seven hours.
“It reminded me of my culture, with the parents getting together with the kids and singing and dancing,” Higginbotham said. “In this case, they were preserving their culture and heritage, making sure their kids don’t forget it.”
People Higginbotham met at that festival asked him to come to the Indian Cultural Center and speak during an appearance by Narayan Desai, son of Mahadev Desai, the personal secretary and biographer of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.
Narayan Desai, known as Bapu (father), was on a speaking tour of the United States.
The appearance with Desai was on a Sunday. Higginbotham had been told the previous Friday that the topic of conversation would be world peace. He spent 10 hours researching Desai, Gandhi and Indian culture in general.
After Higginbotham spoke, he and Desai had a long discussion through an interpreter. The Indian spiritual leader was so impressed, he asked Higginbotham to stay at his ashram in India the following week. Higginbotham politely declined.
After the on-stage appearance with Bapu, Higginbotham was approached by Indian-Americans who asked for help getting cricket fields built at some county parks.
Indians often say their country has two gods: cinema and cricket. Higginbotham knew little about the game but quickly grasped the Indian-Americans’ passion for it. He got his fellow commissioners to approve $800,000 for cricket fields at two county parks — Evans Park in Mango and Rodney Colson Park in Seffner.
His on-stage discussion with Desai had given Higginbotham credibility with local Indian-Americans, but his help in getting the cricket fields won their adulation.
“I will call Al the godfather of cricket in Hillsborough County,” said Nirmal Menon, president of the Florida West Coast Cricket League and an avid cricketer. “I think we should have a billboard on I-75 calling him the godfather of cricket. … He can have a cricket bat in his hands and raise it up.”
Higginbotham joked that he backed the cricket fields for selfish reasons: His daughter Kaylon lives in New Zealand and dates a cricketer.
“Maybe we can have cricket here and our daughter will come home,” he said.
Some local Indian leaders told Higginbotham they felt their past pleas for government help in getting cricket fields were ignored because of racism.
“That stuck in my craw,” he said.
The next request from the Indian-American community would dwarf the cricket fields.
In early 2012, businessman Chetan “Jason” R. Shah and Dave Akshay told Higginbotham they wanted to bring the Oscars of the Bollywood film industry to Tampa.
Other bidding nations have written the International Indian Film Academy large checks to lure the event, Higginbotham said. So Shah and Akshay asked if the county would pony up $15 million.
Higginbotham said the Hillsborough County Commission would never approve that big an expense, but he gave them some ideas about how to raise money. He also connected them men to Visit Tampa Bay.
After more meetings with the Indian-Americans and some personal research, Higginbotham pitched the idea to Corrada, recently hired to lead Visit Tampa Bay.
Contacts were made, and Indian film academy officials visited the Tampa area. Then Higginbotham learned through Corrada that the academy wanted a Tampa delegation to fly to Macau and experience firsthand the hoopla of an awards ceremony.
For all his enthusiasm, Higginbotham thought getting the academy to hold its awards show in Tampa was a long shot. Past ceremonies had been held in Toronto, Singapore and London.
“He thought it was unlikely,” said his wife, Devon. “When it was clear it was going to go, he was more shocked than anybody.”
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Higginbotham later said that Indian film academy officials were impressed that the Hillsborough delegation, which included a number of Indian-Americans, traveled halfway around the world to make the bid.
But many members of the local Indian-American community give Higginbotham credit for the coup.
“We’re still in shock that it’s coming to Tampa of all the major population cities, and it’s thanks to Al Higginbotham that Tampa is the one,” said Nisha Mandani, founder of the Our Aim Foundation, a nonprofit that works to unite youth with lonely senior citizens.
“I love his energy; I love his passion,” Mandani said. “He would not give up until he accomplished it. I think he is a role model.”
Devon Higginbotham said her husband’s tireless efforts to attract and then promote the awards are typical of his approach to other projects and life in general.
During a 1995 hunting trip, a falling tree crushed Higginbotham’s spine. Doctors told him he would never walk again.
“He wasn’t willing to accept that,” Devon said. “He doesn’t walk like everybody else, but he gets around. He wasn’t willing to sit down and feel sorry for himself.”
Higginbotham did more than learn to walk again. He climbed 14,500-foot White Mountain Peak in California’s White Mountains. It took him three days and two nights.
Higginbotham works out in a gym regularly. Once a week for two years, he rode a HART metro bus to work at the downtown Frederick B. Karl County Center.
He is nearing the end of his second term as a county commissioner representing eastern Hillsborough and is seeking election this fall from a countywide district.
Higginbotham wields a wicked sense of humor that wins friends and defuses tense situations.
During the trip to India, he and Corrada were asked to take a group photo with a Bollywood starlet. The shorter, nimbler Corrada bounced onstage and stood next to the Indian beauty. Without warning, Higginbotham shoved Corrada out of the way and took his place.
“He has the ability to make jokes about something that’s tragic,” Devon Higginbotham said, “and everybody laughs about it and everybody finishes what they were doing.”
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