Lisette May was so excited about a library being built near her Hunter’s Green home that she was the first one there the day the New Tampa Regional Library opened in May of 1997.
The library staff handed her a bouquet of flowers for being the library’s first-ever patron. She was accompanied by her then-5-year-old daughter Lindsey (6-year-old Lauren was in school that day), and Lisette remembers marveling at the modern design and layout, the view of the lake out back and the stuffed animals and bean bag chairs in the children’s area.
“There was a lot of anticipation,” says Lisette, who checked out a half dozen books, a movie on videotape and signed her daughters up for the summer reading programs while she was there. “It was very exciting for everyone. I remember thinking, wow, they did a really good job with this.”
On May 4, the New Tampa Regional Library (NTRL) turns 25 years old. Lisette still visits, impressed by all of the library’s new additions and offerings, and happily recollects her years taking her children to story times or just to sit and enjoy a book with them.
“I always felt like going to the library made you feel like you were part of a really great community,” Lisette says. “We would go and see our neighbors there; the kids would see their friends from school there. It was a great place to see your friends and educate your kids.”
The story of how the NTRL came to be is one of Said Iravani’s favorites. The longtime Heritage Isles resident thinks about it almost every time he drives by the library on Cross Creek Blvd. — which, of course, is almost every day.
More than three decades ago, a group of Hunter’s Green and Tampa Palms residents, headed by a retired librarian, put hundreds of hours into a grassroots movement, calling city and county officials and cajoling a local developer to donate the land, with the goal of building a 25,000-sq.-ft. state-of-the-art regional library that is arguably the heart of the New Tampa community and, while perhaps a little underappreciated, may be its greatest resource.
“It’s such a great story,” says Iravani, who has written a few of the pages himself as the former president of the Friends of the New Tampa Regional Library, a group dedicated to raising funds for programs and equipment the county’s budget does not cover.
The first thing you may notice when you walk into the NTRL lobby is the Jeri Zelinski Community Room, which was dedicated to the library’s patron saint in 2004, two years after her passing.
Zelinski, the retired librarian and founding president of Friends of the Library, which was formed in 1990, is credited as being largely responsible for securing the library for New Tampa.
With help from friends like Lorraine Clewis of the Tampa Palms Ladies Club, the New Tampa Community Council (led by then-president Frank Margarella) and others, Zelinski forged partnerships and soon began attending Tampa-Hillsborough Library Advisory Board and County Commission meetings.
She developed a close alliance with then-County Commissioner Jan Platt, who helped push through a .10-mill property tax to pay for the library.
The Tampa Palms Ladies Club also played a big role in helping circulate petitions, and Zelinski did all she could to find a home for the library. It could have ended up in Tampa Palms, but its developer, Ken Good, only offered 1.6 acres of land, according to The Tampa Tribune, which was not enough for a regional library.
Clewis had to withdraw from the library effort due to family obligations, which could have been a big blow to the Friends. But, Zelinski continued to look for land, expanding her search to the Cross Creek and Pebble Creek areas.
Eventually, however, Zelinski contacted Markborough Florida, the developers of Hunter’s Green, and helped secure 3.6 acres just east of Hunter’s Green Elementary and west of the future Benito Middle School.
“Quite simply, there wouldn’t be a library without Jeri Zelinski,” says Iravani, who has fought against efforts to name the library after anyone other than Zelinski, and was active in efforts to begin an expansion project in 2008.That effort was tabled but is still under consideration.
On May 2, 1997, a black tie- optional gala was held at Tampa Palms Golf & Country Club to celebrate the opening of the library. The grand prize that night: two round-trip plane tickets to Lima, Peru.
Two days later, the New Tampa Regional Library opened its doors at 9 a.m.
Wendy Prasad, administrative librarian and the NTRL branch manager since 2017, says that despite changing reading habits and the effects of technology on libraries in general, the New Tampa Library is still going strong.
Last year, more than 72,000 people visited the library, and it has consistently been one of the most popular libraries in the county’s system.
“There are so many things we provide the community,” she says, including a main reading room, a separate children’s room, Grandma Claire’s Early Learning Hive, robust summer reading programs, meeting and study rooms, free WiFi and computer use and a wealth of online services.
The library continues to be a place that can open up the world to newer and older generations.
When it first opened, this newspaper published stories about the videotapes, audio cassettes and compact discs that were available to check out. How times have changed — you can now check out a 4K video camera the size of a couple of packs of gum.
“We have definitely evolved,” Prasad says. “And I think you’ll see us continue to evolve.”
The NTRL is located at 10001 Cross Creek Blvd. The Friends of the Library are hosting a Giant Book Sale at NTRL May 6-7. For more info, email FriendsofNewTampaLibrary@gmail.com.