If there's one thing erstwhile gymnast Nadia Comaneci, filmstar Aishwarya Rai and cricketer Sourav Ganguly have in common, it's that they're all brand ambassadors for Amby Valley, the developing lake city off the Mumbai-Lonavala expressway.
Over the past couple of years, Amby Valley has hit the headlines for its high-profile jamborees. From the Laureus sports awards to the Mrs World contest, domestic and international celebrities have swooped down on its landscaped environs.
The purpose? To build the brand image for the 10,000-acre Amby Valley promoted by the Lucknow-based Sahara group.
With a reported asset base of over Rs 50,000 crore (Rs 500 billion), the group is positioning Amby Valley as the "most premium residential development in the country".
Today Sahara is embarking on a no-holds barred marketing blitzkrieg to promote the product. Even as it is selling real estate, it wants to highlight its infrastructure and other amenities critical for establishing a township.
As part of that infrastructure initiative, a well maintained 25-km road winds up to the destination.
Entry is restricted, or gated, as guards put their hands on their hearts for the Sahara pranam. The promoters instantly make their presence felt with their mascot, a gigantic Bharatmata statue atop a long flight of stairs.
For a brief moment, it's like being on one of Bollywood's kitschy film sets.
Drive down and the place unfolds into well-manicured lawns, manmade lakes, domed structures, wooden constructions, Spanish cottages and chalets.
What exactly is Amby Valley and what is it selling? Seemanto Roy, the younger son of Sahara group promoter Subroto Roy, head-infrastructure & housing, Sahara India Pariwar, says, "We want to give people a lifestyle and create a city that no one in India has done."
On offer are furnished half- to two-acre villas and one- and two-bedroom timber chalets. The tag? Only Rs 2.5 crore (Rs 25 million) for a chalet; up to Rs 15 crore (Rs 150 million) for a two-acre villa.
Predictably, the target audience is the well-heeled -- high networth individuals, non-resident Indians, persons of Indian origin, and corporate executives.
Today, more than a decade after Sahara first began acquiring land at Amby Valley, the accent is on infrastructure. The logic is simple: targeting the well-heeled is one thing, but getting them to actually buy is another.
So Sahara claims to have pumped in Rs 4,500 crore (Rs 45 billion), "all from internal accruals", on building basic amenities. Roy says that the group will spend Rs 15,000 crore (Rs 150 billion) by 2014, when the entire project will be ready. For this, negotiations are on for foreign direct investment.
There are plans to build schools, hospitals, entertainment centres, economic zones, wellness and rehabilitation centers -- all that constitutes a township.
This is a part of the offer. The other is the social accouterments. Already up are lakes and bridges, recreation centres, an airstrip, a 250-acre, day and night, PGA-approved golf course, a waterfront with a faux lagoon, and a Benares ghat replica for cultural soirees. There's even an artisan's village.
But the business model is simple: Sahara is selling real estate in Amby Valley, while the rest are only special attractions. Roy claims that 150 plots have been sold, even as private real estate agents claim that it could be just one-third the number.
Ambitious? The real estate industry is divided on its verdict on Amby Valley. Says farmer-turned-builder Satish Magar, "Amby Valley is good to see, but sustaining it will be an issue. How many people will make it their regular home?"
Anuj Puri, managing director of real estate consultants Chesterton Meghraj, argues: "It is only a matter of time before Amby Valley takes off. Unlike builders who sell sites while the project is on plan, the promoters have actually worked on the infrastructure before putting the project on the market."
All this comes at a time when townships are mushrooming in Maharashtra. Already, 90 minutes away from Amby Valley, is the 400-acre Magarpatta city.
Built by Magar, it boasts an IT park, residential complex and recreational facilities. The difference in price -- Rs 10 lakh (Rs 1 million) for a two-bedroom flat, and Rs 30 lakh (Rs 3 million) for four bedrooms.
Then there is Lavasa, a new township project by a consortium of corporates. The prices of homes are said to be the same as Magarpatta. Then, there are any number of builders offering luxurious villas around Lonavala ranging from Rs 900,000 to Rs 25 lakh (Rs 2.5 million).
Where do the cheaper alternatives place Amby Valley? "You can buy 100 acres outside Amby Valley, but you can't get the lifestyle that we offer," says Roy.
With recreation and eating places on offer, and most plans yet to take shape, investors are eyeing Amby Valley as a weekend destination -- but Roy wants to make it a "first home".
But real estate agents aren't too gung ho about this happening soon. "Its success depends on other infrastructure alternatives to link Mumbai and Pune, apart from the expressway, which is still uncertain," says a builder.
Consultants point to Magarpatta city, just 25 minutes off Pune. Based on the 'walk-to-work, walk-to-school' concept, it is driven by the Software Technology Park situated in the heart of the city.
By comparison, Amby Valley is 90 minutes from both Mumbai and Pune. "The challenge for Amby Valley is to have an economic driver," says Chesterton's Puri. Roy wants to develop the economic zone fast, but continues to be vague about which industries it will cater to.
There is also the issue of selling the homes. "Amby Valley just can't piggyback on its celebrity roster. It has to scale up its price gradually," says a real estate consultant.
But Roy is unperturbed. "To think big you have to do big," he says.