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Hillsborough aviation authority readies $400,000 war chest for suit against Hernando County

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board sent a message on Thursday to the Hernando County Commission: It's on.

The board that governs Tampa International Airport voted unanimously to spend $400,000 to fight Hernando in federal court over the old Hernando County Airport's new name: Brooksville-Tampa Regional Airport.

Hillsborough's problem is with Hernando using the words "Tampa airport" — even though the airports are 40 miles apart and could not be more different. Brooksville's is a small commuter airport. Tampa's is a major U.S. airport.

But to the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, the name "Tampa airport" is an attack on Tampa International's brand, and a violation of the "Tampa airport" federal trademark owned by the Hillsborough aviation authority.

"We have no choice but to protect our name," said Tampa International chief executive officer Joe Lopano. "I would imagine Old Navy would be upset if someone came in and named a company Old Regional Navy."

Despite Hillsborough's trademark and a letter from its attorney, the Hernando County Commission voted in October to rename the airport.

Their attorney told the board that Tampa could not trademark a "place name."

In November, the Hillsborough board voted to sue to protect its federal trademark.

Now the board is signaling that it's willing to go to trial by authorizing a legal war chest.

The $400,000 is the estimated cost of a federal trial.

"I support regionalism," Lopano said, "but not to our detriment."

Hernando officials seemed undaunted by the news.

Hernando County Commission Chairman Dave Russell said the Hillsborough authority had already "gotten off to a bad foot with the judge'' by trying to get around a rule that requires governmental agencies to try mediation before going to court.

Lawyers from both sides will meet next week to talk.

Hernando officials seemed just as confident of victory as their Hillsborough counterparts.

"Our attorney and our staff are just resolute that their case is without merit," Russell said. "There is significant precedent about using the name.''

But Gigi Rechel, the attorney for Hillsborough's board, told them they had no choice but to fight.

"If you don't protect your trademark," she said, "it's a use-it-or-lose-it scenario."

Rechel also said not fighting would also be a waste of the $60,000 investment the board made to obtain the trademark.

The Tampa firm GrayRobinson, which obtained the trademark, will get the $400,000 to pay for litigation.

The Hillsborough board members all shook their heads at the notion of going to court over a name — but voted to do so anyway.

"Obviously, none of us want to have go down this path," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "It's just ridiculous. I think it's unfortunate we have to do this. But I would agree that we have to protect our brand."

Dr. Joseph Diaco, a member of Hillsborough's board, suggested this compromise: "How about Brooksville-Near-Tampa'' airport?

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404.

Hillsborough aviation authority readies $400,000 war chest for suit against Hernando County 01/10/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 10, 2013 11:59pm]
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