IF HERNANDO COUNTY had a touchstone for economic promise and potential in 2012, it would have to be smack in the middle of the county's 2,400-acre airport.
That would be the Brooksville-Tampa Regional Airport.
Not only did the airport get a new name, but also an air traffic control tower, a couple of visits by Gov. Rick Scott and a flurry of announcements regarding new and expanding businesses.
"This year was almost as big as the year we were first given the airport by the federal government,'' said Gary Schraut, chairman of the Hernando County Aviation Authority. "That was the birth of Hernando County into the aviation industry.''
The most conspicuous — and some would argue most significant — improvement at the airport is the 82-foot-tall control tower, which opened in mid October.
The $2.25 million structure, 80 percent financed by aviation grants, let the airport establish a controlled airspace. Construction had been controversial, but airport officials argued that it would increase safety and provide a draw for industry the county needs to diversify its tax base.
"I think that the control tower coming online is one of those things that is symbolic of the airport's accomplishments and sophistication,'' said Michael McHugh, the county's business development manager.
The airport, a former World War II airfield with runways long enough to accommodate large jets, is the centerpiece of the county's industrial, corporate and rail parks.
In the months leading up to the activation of the tower, officials gathered community input to prepare to rebrand the airport. A week after the tower opened, the County Commission changed the name from Hernando County Airport to Brooksville-Tampa Regional Airport.
The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority warned Hernando officials of potential legal action if they made the name change. Shortly after the County Commission approved the new name, the Hillsborough authority followed through with its threat and filed a federal lawsuit against Hernando County, citing its trademark on "Tampa" and "Airport."
The news at the airport was far more positive when the governor visited in October to participate in the announcement that Accuform Signs was going to build new headquarters and a manufacturing facility on a 44-acre site owned by the airport.
The $15 million facility, one of the largest manufacturing facilities announced in the state this year, would increase the workforce of about 280 employees by about 271 by 2016. Eventually, the plant could employ 600.
The governor had high praise for the Johnson family, which founded and has run the business for more than 30 years.
"You should be proud of what you've built,'' Scott told them.
Hernando officials had been working behind the scenes for months to get the details lined up to make the announcement, calling the Accuform expansion "Project Kodiak'' until the official word could be shared.
McHugh said the county was especially pleased that Accuform chose to stay in Hernando because the company had options for expansion in other locations.
"Every time a company comes down to their major decision points and they choose to stay here, that's a big valuation of where you are,'' he said.
Scott was back at the airport several weeks later to celebrate the success of Airdyne Aerospace Inc., which primarily develops equipment for military planes. Company officials had been looking to expand after just three years in their current location.
Another business in expansion mode during 2012 was Interconnect Cable Technologies Corp. The company, which produces custom data and power cabling products, was established in 1988 and this year bought a vacant 24,000-square-foot building on Flight Path Drive, across the street from its existing 30,000-square-foot manufacturing facility.
Also this year, the airport landed Pem-Air LLC, an aircraft refurbishing and repair company.
Officials are hoping that expansion of the airport and the surrounding businesses continues into 2013, and they have several projects on the front burner.
For the last few months, they have been working on a plan to build a $3 million, 32,000-square-foot aviation maintenance facility near the main runway. Large enough to house big narrow-body airplanes, it would be a new endeavor to provide work space to match the capabilities of the airport's runways.
McHugh said it would also help create more jobs at the airport and provide an opportunity to try something different.
The county would construct the shell of the speculative building and customize the structure once a business came forward to operate in it.
The county's aviation authority is also working on a deal to purchase the property known as the Brooksville Air Center, which folded months ago after a private company's failed attempt to operate as a second fixed-base operator at the airport.
Among the possible uses of a portion of the site: an office for U.S. Customs and Immigration.
Schraut, of the aviation authority, hand-delivered a letter to the governor recently asking for his support to get a customs office at the airport. Such a move is seen as being particularly helpful to the air ambulance services based there, as well as to other companies looking to do business internationally.
Scott's letter in support of the customs facility came just last week, launching airport and economic development staff members into research mode to determine their next steps in making the customs dream happen.
As full of good news as 2012 has been, Schraut and McHugh said they do not want to lose momentum as 2013 begins.
"The airport has definitely been growing and prospering, so we not only have to keep the pedal to the metal; we have to push hard enough to dent the floor,'' McHugh said. "We've got 2,400 acres of opportunity here.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.
The airport literally made a name for itself this year, with a new title, buildings and business partnerships.