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Tampa International sues over Hernando airport's use of the word 'Tampa'

TAMPA — The two airports are more than 40 miles apart.

One serves commercial airlines, greets tens of thousands of passengers annually and offers international flights.

The other serves only small, private planes and business aircraft.

But just in case someone confuses Tampa International Airport with the recently renamed Brooksville-Tampa Regional Airport, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board voted Thursday to sue the Hernando County Aviation Authority in federal court.

"(They're taking) advantage of the value we've built in our name," Tampa airport attorney Gigi Rechel told the board. "We need to protect the goodwill and value we have built into our name."

At Rechel's urging, the board unanimously adopted a resolution to bypass a Florida statute that requires two governmental bodies to enter into mediation before suing each other and file suit immediately. She also urged board members not to make any public comments that could affect legal proceedings, so the board passed the resolution without comment as well.

The suit was filed against the Hernando County Commission and the Hernando County Aviation Authority soon after the board's vote Thursday.

"We have invested a lot of time and money building our brand and reputation, so it's important that we protect the Tampa airport name," said Tampa International spokeswoman Janet Zink. "The name the Hernando County airport has chosen is confusing and misleading. The Hernando airport isn't in Tampa. It isn't even in Hillsborough County."

The resolution — on which the board was briefed before the meeting, but did not actually read — said that Tampa International has spent "millions of dollars" to develop a reputation that travelers associate with "Tampa airport."

The new name for the old Hernando County Airport could cause Tampa International "immediate and irreparable harm" because the Hernando Aviation Authority renamed the airport "for the purposes of marketing, developing and attracting business."

In fact, the Tampa airport has been working to trademark the names "Tampa International Airport" and "Tampa Airport" since 2010 and has already paid the Tampa law firm of Gray Robinson $36,000 to that end.

Last month, a limousine company's challenge to the Tampa International Airport trademark was dismissed, and the airport is waiting for the trademarked name to be officially registered.

TIA said it has "common law rights" to those names and to the name of its subsidiary facility, Tampa Executive Airport. That facility, like Hernando's airport, is a general aviation facility.

Rechel told the Hillsborough board that she recently met with Hernando County attorneys to discuss the matter.

"Our discussions were for naught," she said. "There was no attempt to find common ground."

That meeting took place before the Hernando County Commission unanimously voted Oct. 23 to re-brand the airport and tie it in with its surrounding industrial, corporate and rail business interests.

Renaming the Brooksville airport was first considered in July, but Hernando County delayed taking any action so it could meet with the legal adviser to the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board, which oversees Tampa International's operations.

However, when Hernando commissioners voted to change the name last month, County Attorney Garth Coller said that any notion that its airport and Tampa International could be confused was "absurd."

"You can't trademark a place name,'' Coller said.

He also advised Hernando commissioners that the county would be in a strong legal position if the matter ended up in court.

On Thursday, after learning of the lawsuit, Coller said, "Now that they've done that, there is nothing I can say because of pending litigation.''

Michael McHugh, Hernando County's business development manager, and Gary Schraut, chairman of the Hernando Aviation Authority, both also declined comment.

Hernando Commissioner Dave Russell, however, said the lawsuit was "just ridiculous.

"I think that they're full of it," Russell said.

Russell, who is the commission's liaison to the airport, said, "They have to have better things to do than to pick on Hernando County for essentially just claiming its relationship with Tampa.''

County officials spent months deciding on a new name that would be the first step in re-branding the airport and surrounding area. They noted that anytime someone asks them where Hernando County is, the answer is that it is north of Tampa.

"It's wrong what they're doing,'' Russell said. "It's just unfortunate that both sides will now have to expend monies and time and effort that we frankly don't have to waste on something so frivolous.''

Hernando's re-branding efforts haven't completely taken off yet. According to its website, the airport is still called the Hernando County Airport. But the lawsuit notes that the airport has begun to use the new name on social media sites.

Staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report.

Tampa International sues over Hernando airport's use of the word 'Tampa' 11/01/12 [Last modified: Thursday, November 1, 2012 8:32pm]
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