TOWN 'N COUNTRY — On her first visit, Barbara Drivas wasted no time making use of the resources of the new Town 'N Country Commons.
Upstairs, she checked out a couple of travel books about Italy and planned to take a computer class at the library.
Downstairs, she looked into the exercise classes she expects to take a couple of days a week at the senior center.
"We've been waiting a year for this wonderful, huge facility," said Drivas, 74, a retired real estate agent.
The $10.9-million Commons opened this month north of Hills- borough Avenue, at Paula and Ambassador drives.
It includes a new regional library, a Head Start child care center and a senior center. A 4-acre community garden will arrive next spring.
This is the product of a decade of discussion and planning.
In the late 1990s, Hillsborough County officials approached Town 'N Country, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, to ask how residents and business owners wanted to see their community evolve.
A town center was a top priority. Along the way, the vision changed in response to the community and marketplace. A parking garage and offices with townhomes upstairs were out. But most everyone agreed that Town 'N Country needed a new library. The old one was small, and heavy rains flooded the atrium. So the county moved the library to a temporary home on Waters Avenue, demolished the old building and started anew on its 8-acre site.
The community also wanted something distinctive.
"We didn't want the box look that everyone else had," said Carlton Lewis, vice chairman of the Town 'N Country Alliance. "We wanted something that looked stately, like a courthouse."
The two-story, 45,000-square-foot building has a grand entrance, metal roof and a parking lot tucked in the back. Its red brick exterior and rows of tall windows give parts of the building the look of a historic cigar factory.
At 30,000 square feet, the new library is twice as big as the old one and occupies the second floor of the Commons. It has 120,000 books, audio books and DVDs, including many in Spanish. It offers 25 Internet computer terminals for public use, wireless access, a teen room and a separate children's department. About half the 16 library staffers are bilingual.
Thanks to contributions from the Friends of the Town 'N Country Regional Library, the library has large oval signs over departments, and bookshelves with end panels painted with outdoor scenes, plus glass-topped tables with inlaid artwork and 5-foot hanging sculptures of birds in flight in the children's department.
The first floor is home to the Head Start program, Senior Center, bookstore, community meeting rooms and a small alcove with a few tables and snack machines.
Putting the three facilities together allows parents to use the library and makes it possible for retirees at the senior center to come over and read to the 60 children enrolled in the Head Start program.
"I love it," Head Start senior case manager Richard Campbell said. "We're working together."
Still to come is the Shimberg Gardens, a community garden named for the family that developed Town 'N Country.
Except for a gazebo, playground and retention pond, the park is now little more than 4 acres of vacant property.
But in coming months it will be landscaped and planted with more than a dozen large specimens of native trees: live oaks, magnolia and red cedar.
"We want larger trees," said Rob Gamester, community projects chairman for the Town 'N Country Garden Circle, which is working with the county on the project. "We want instant shade."
The garden circle, along with the Town 'N Country Optimist Club and half a dozen civic associations, has raised more than two-thirds of $100,000 earmarked for enhancements to the garden.
The garden will feature native and drought-tolerant plants. Ideally, it'll be a place residents can see what could work in their own yards.
"The Commons obviously is a keystone of our community plan, but the park is another piece," Gamester said.
In the depths of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, it's too soon to say whether the Commons will meet one of the other goals of the community planning process: inspiring redevelopment of some of the area's shabbier strip malls.
But the president and CEO of the Upper Tampa Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce says the Commons is evidence that the community is looking to the future.
"It makes a statement that needed to be made," chamber executive Jerry Custin said.
Richard Danielson can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5311.