Frank Abbondanzio retiring; will be the longest-lasting municipal administrator in Franklin County

  • Frank Abbondanzio sits in his office at Montague Town Hall on Thursday. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Montague Municipal Assistant Frank Abbondanzio stands in front of Town Hall. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Published: 7/25/2016 11:22:18 PM

TURNERS FALLS — Frank Abbondanzio, who turned in his resignation Monday night as Montague municipal assistant, took on the job of town administrative assistant as a recent University of Massachusetts graduate who’d studied European history, international relations, art and, finally, landscape architecture and planning.

With that diverse background, the then-32-year-old Air Force veteran from the Boston area became the first administrative and planning professional in a town that was, in 1980, still reeling from years struggling with the transition from its reputation as the home of the Renaissance Church, with the loss of factory jobs in its downtown mills and with a controversy over a potential twin nuclear plant.

When he retires Dec. 6, Abbondanzio will be the longest-lasting municipal administrator in Franklin County, if not western Massachusetts.

Apart from a five-year hiatus working as that Berkshire County town’s first administrator between 1992 and 1997, one reason for Abbondanzio’s longevity in Montague may be the range of tasks he handled and the roles he played as his job morphed from part-time planner and administrative assistant to executive secretary and then to town administrator.

“I’ve been in the position as it’s evolved, and with that have been delegated more responsibilities, including budgeting, personnel and management so it’s been the kind of job where you could grow with it. That’s been the nice part of it because my background is very interdisciplinary, with a lot of interests. It’s been fun while being in the position being able to apply that to the job I do.”

Hired to handle planning functions for 70 percent of his time, Abbondanzio — who’d been doing a neighborhood study in Greenfield as part of his graduate work in planning — was charged with handling Montague’s block grant program.

When the Franklin County Housing and Redevelopment Authority approached the town about run the block grant program, “that was one of the best decisions we made,” Abbondanzio said, because it freed him to do more administrative work, while grant writing by the housing authority “brought in an incredible amount of resources for housing rehabilitation, social services and public facilities, and they’ve been very successful writing grants and doing needs assessments with the town.

Abbondanzio continued to write grants for public works, economic development and Streetscape projects, along with the first proposal for the Turners Falls Heritage Park, which became the Great Falls Discovery Center.

A Boston consultant who looked at Turners Falls “said there was no destination worth coming to,” Abbondanzio recalls. The heritage project was seen as changing that, but state money dried up in the late 1980s, with the Pioneer Litho building slated for demolition to make way for the main access to a regional incinerator project proposed by county government.

“That would have been the gateway to Turners Falls,” said Abbondanzio, who helped then-Congressman John W. Olver in the project and the eventual rescue of that building as well as the brick building that now is the Great Hall.

Abbondanzio’s personal interest in history, art and architecture meant that when he moved to the area, he fell in love with the architecture of the planned community that is Turners Falls.

“Two things Turners Falls always had going for it was its architecture and the natural beauty of the river,” he said. “Historical preservation has always been one of my top priorities,” so much so that when the Rist Insurance building was being redeveloped, Abbondanzio had fun sketching what he thought the facade should look like, and then was asked by the builder if he could work out the design drawings as well.

Abbondanzio also played a role in the development of the Powertown project, and helped a historic district get established on the National Register of Historic Places, working with the Franklin Community Development Corp. to have the Shea Theater restored and also seeing the Cutlery Block, the Colle Opera House and the Crocker Building get restored with $2.5 million in grants and $500,000 in town money.

“Turners Falls has been this up and down, up and down, where it gets to a point but doesn’t quite make it,” he said. With the Discovery Center, Canalside Bike Trail and Unity Park now working with the Shea Theatre to attract people to town, “I think it’s finally getting to point where it’s over the hump, but in the early 2000s, the Colle-Crocker-Cutlery was the lynchpin project. I think it made a big difference because people started to see a different physical Turners Falls.

Village restoration

And if a the village has seemed “like a Hollywood set between takes — beautiful, but with nothing going on” — the Turners Falls River Culture project “has kind of put the people on the stage.”

The hardest part of restoring the village has been “the enormity of the problem,” he says. “There’s just so much (vacant) space to deal with, and the market can only handle so much commercial space. Given the square-foot costs we could generate in rent, that’s a problem no matter what we do, because of the condition of the buildings, the cost of rehabilitation has required generating income of $50 per square foot, but we could only get $10 per square foot at the most.”

For that reason, Abbondanzio favored a commercial homesteading program, selling for $1 tax title properties the town had taken, if developers agreed to do historic preservation, create jobs and invest a certain amount of money.

That has worked for a number of properties in Turners Falls, Millers Falls and Montague Center, Abbondanzio said.

“These are buildings you wouldn’t get anyone to come into and even touch unless they get it for nothing, and they put that money into rehab of the building, hopefully doing historic preservation, to some extent. Otherwise, they come in with ‘What’s the cheapest way to get this done?’ And the old stuff goes out the window.”

Abbondanzio’s graduate study in international relations at Carlton University, and his interest in history, has played out in research for River Culture, most recently presented in a series of programs on the French-Canadian, Polish, Irish and German immigrants to the town, as well as his work on a 2004 reconciliation ceremony with Native American tribes and the groundwork for a Native American cultural park, with funding from the National Park Service.

“The park is just an idea at this point, but my hope was to be able to tie in with the 400 anniversary of the Pilgrims, etc. (in 2020.) There’s a whole different story, a story that should be told. It makes so much, sense with the Discovery Center being here. We could have forums, workshops and discussions of the concept of reconciliation for different purposes. All of that could tie in into Native American cultural tourism.”

Abbondanzio says he’s been pleased with the way the town has transitioned its industrial jobs from old downtown mill buildings to the industrial park and other areas, so that those jobs have been retained and the tax base has been supported.

“And Millers Falls is starting to turn the corner now, finally, with commercial homesteading. It’s a challenge, but the sale is much smaller, so it’s more manageable.”

Abbondanzio, who plans to spend his retirement on writing projects, visiting the ocean and spending more time with his family, including two grandchildren, has earned admiration from many of the officials he’s worked with over three decades.

“The arc of his tenure saw enornous changes in what Montague is and its place in Franklin County and in the valley,” said Jay DiPucchio, who’s played a variety of roles on town boards. “He had a lot to do with laying the groundwork for those (business growth, and entertainment opportunities to evince themselves.

“Frank had a relatively consistent vision for the development of each of the (five Montague) villages but never loss sight of the overall financial stability of the town of Montague. His strength was always in the numbers and in making sure the long-term financial stability of the town supported the more specific divisions that he had in each of the villages. We see real attention to balancing all the pieces of the larger community.”

Patricia Allen, who worked with Abbondanzio from 1999 to 2014 as a selectman, said, “Frank’s done so much for the town, it’s incredible. When you look around Turners Falls and downtown Millers, any of the construction or even the ambiance is because of what Frank has put it into it. Frank has always had a vision of what the town could look like, what we could actually do. I’ve always been amazed that the powers-in-be in Boston have always responded very well to Montague and Turners request, and I think it’s because they hold Frank in high regard.”

She added, “Frank was the one who always kept quietly encouraging everybody, and if you had any questions, he always had a very calm approach and good pragmatic reasons why things would work. He was always careful that whatever we did didn’t jeopardize the future. You can’t overstate Frank’s importance to the town of Montague, and particularly the village of Turners Falls.”

You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com

or 413-772-0261, ext. 269




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