By Chris Buchignani
To even the most casual radio listeners here in the Valley (and in many other markets throughout the country), Accuweather meteorologist Elliot Abrams is the familiar voice of the morning weather forecast. Abrams has been with Accuweather since its early days; even as he has become a fixture of an expanding international corporation, for residents of Patton Township, he has also been a constant presence in their local government.
Today, Elliot Abrams has the distinction of being the longest-tenured elected official in the Nittany Valley, having served on Patton’s Board of Supervisors for 32 out of the 34 years since being elected to his first six-year term in 1981 (with a brief interruption from 2000 to 2002). He has enjoyed a unique insider’s perspective on decades of slow, yet inexorable change, as the University and region around it have been transformed.
“There’s been a great amount of growth of all kinds, and at each stage, there were people who wanted the government to stop allowing it, and you had forces who wanted it to grow even faster,” he said.
A native Philadelphian who arrived here as a Penn State undergrad, Abrams was first drawn into the realm of local government through an early, but critical driver in the area’s shifting complexion – the push to bring regional airport service from the Philipsburg area to State College.
“Back in the Seventies, as Accuweather was getting started, I thought that we should be represented in the community, and so I joined the chamber of commerce, and became active on its transportation committees and government affairs committees,” recalled Abrams. “It struck me that everybody was complaining and not getting anything done.”
That revelation led to deeper scrutiny of the opportunities and challenges facing the region, and soon after, his concerns about snow plowing for local school bus routes found him in front of the township supervisors. In a classic case of the “squeaky wheel” effect, Abrams ended up being recruited to get more involved, first through the township’s sign review board, then an appointment to the planning commission.
“You become very knowledgeable about the community on the planning commission. I felt I was more aware of what was going on on the planning commission than at the supervisor level. All developers come in with their plans, and they’re vetted very carefully.”
After a stint on the planning commission, handling nuts and bolts issues like ensuring that planned parking for a new building matched the number of actual spaces, Abrams was encouraged to run for a supervisor position and elected in 1981.
“I found that things change very slowly. But I liked the idea of people being able to come in and actually tell us about problems that were occurring,” he said. “It’s not a glamourous thing, but the roads have to be maintained; you have to have a police department, and if people have problems, they have to know some place they can go where someone is actually going to listen to them and hopefully fix them. That’s all the job really is.”
In his years serving as a supervisor, pay for that job has risen from $600 in ’81 to $4,000 today. “The state has slowly raised it over the years. It still comes out to double-digit cents per hour. You’re not doing it to get rich.”
It is a fact of American life that we tend to pay the least amount of attention to the public offices whose authority most directly affects our daily lives. Township supervisor labor in relative obscurity, tackling important, if mundane, issues like zoning, sidewalk installation, and management of the regional growth boundary. Abrams finds fulfillment in the chance to solve problems. He appreciates opportunities to serve as an advocate for Penn State students on local issues and points to recent passage of a referendum authorizing a tax increase to fund more public open space as an example of democracy at work. Plus, “it’s something different to do. I’m (at Accuweather) all morning fussing over the weather, so it’s a change of pace.”
For a career spanning such a long period of time, including so many changes to the area, there have been relatively few speed bumps along the way. Abrams says that the rare moments of contention have typically involved disagreements over growth and development, including a controversy over development of the Gray’s Woods community that culminated in an unsuccessful ballot initiative to split the township. Naturally, there has been some griping about money too.
“There was one time when we were doing a budget hearing, and several people came who were upset that we were spending too much money. I’d learned that, actually, if you put the people that are most upset on your committees, you get them involved, they may still be upset about what’s going on, but if you’re doing something that’s legitimate, that’s good for the community basically, they will actually come along and get a greater appreciation that maybe what is happening should be done this way. So we had several meetings where we deliberately invited people who had come to complain to us to come a meeting and air this stuff out.”
During that meeting, the supervisors reviewed each expenditure with the concerned citizens, things like police services, road paving, and snow removal. “The township does very basic things, and they came away agreeing that probably what we were spending was reasonable. Now the next morning in the paper, the headline is ‘Residents rail against township budget.’”
Abrams has been at this unglamorous job for over three decades, nearing the end of that journey and looking back, and may be ready to finally call it quits when his current term expires in 2019. Time may move more slowly here in the Nittany Valley, but it never stops. “Since I’ll be 72 then, this might be the last one. I think it has been worthwhile.”
Elliot Abrams left Philadelphia to attend Penn State, and ended up enmeshed in the growth of an international company and globally-recognized brand, all the while remaining intimately involved in the growth and life of this community for over 30 years. He has led a life rooted in shaping the direction and character of the Nittany Valley in lasting, meaningful ways.
“You don’t live all those things in an individual day. You take things as they come. I’ve seen everything unfold in a gradual way, and it hasn’t been anything that different. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s always been a place where you’re sort of isolated from the rest of the world, in a way. That’s why it’s been Happy Valley.”