The Florida Scenic Highways Program is proud to announce that Al and Phyllis Abbatiello from the William Bartram Scenic & Historic Highway (WBSHH) are the 2023 recipients of the Garry Balogh Inspiring Excellence Award – the highest distinction that a member of our scenic highway community can receive. The award was established in 2015 and named after Garry Balogh – the past Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) District Five Scenic Highway Coordinator.
It’s presented annually to a member of the byway community who best exemplifies Garry’s passion for Florida’s scenic highway program. Nominees are measured in several categories including leadership skills, innovation, and their passion for the program.
Dean Stoddart, FDOT State Scenic Highway Coordinator, made the announcement of the Abbatiello’s award at the William Bartram Byway Organization meeting on September 22, 2023.
Congratulations Al and Phyllis!
Janice Charles | District Two Scenic Highway Coordinator, Phyllis Abbatiello, Al Abbatiello, and Dean Stoddart | FDOT State Scenic Highway Coordinator at the byway meeting where the award was presented to the “dynamic duo.”
Inspiring Community Leadership
This husband-and-wife team have committed over 20 years to preservation and protection of the historic sites and natural beauty of the St Johns River region of St Johns County. Combined, Al and Phyllis bring nearly 45 years of experience to their byway community.
“For 20 years Al and Phyllis have sat in on commission meetings monitoring agendas and speaking out for the protection of the resources that when gone – are gone forever.”
– St Johns County Commission Candidate Kim Kendall
Al and Phyllis have lived in St. Johns County since 1997, and have always been a force for good:
- Al has long been engaged with County politics and the local business community as a recognized leader and advocate.
- He continues to champion growth management and resource preservation for the community in his 18th year as Chair of the byway.
- Phyllis has always been Al’s strongest sounding board and has served in numerous roles, including the long-term Treasurer.
- They persevered through tough times, continually taking on local politics and developers focused on growth at the cost of resource preservation, with a realistic eye to sensible growth.
- They have represented the byway at endless local events and celebrations in hot tents for consecutive days at a time, telling the WBSHH story to keep the flame alive.
Al Abbatiello (Chair of WBSHH) with Angie McFarland (Vice Chair of WBSHH) representing the byway at the 2022 Bartram Frolic on the St Johns Riverfront in Palatka.
2023 Revitalization of the Byway Organization
The byway organization had been critically low on volunteers for several years by 2022. Al and Phyllis implemented a rebuild strategy that has recruited nearly 100 new members over the past year!
In 2022, they identified all property owners along the 17-mile corridor, which included nearly 1,500 people. They sent a passionate, focused letter to this community outlining the mission of the organization and establishing a sense of urgency for the preservation of the corridor’s resources.
Six months into 2023, their efforts grew the organization from 10 members to more than 75 active volunteers who help with:
- Maintaining and refurbishing a website
- Managing social media channels
- Recruiting additional volunteers
- Seeking for grants and donors
Alpine Groves Park is one site of byway celebrations and a key byway destination.
Significant Work fulfilling the Byway Mission
Local History Curriculum Development
Al and Phyllis led a team of volunteers to develop a local history curriculum as a supplement for St Johns County schools. The tagline they developed for the project reflects their strong vision: We Have the Power to Impact Our Future, and We’re Doing Something About it one student at a time.
Al listens to Greg Gensheimer of Green Mountain Scenic Byway during a discussion at the 2022 meeting in St. Augustine.
As noted above, the Abbatiellos “show up” for countless events, as community engagement is one of the prominent goals of the organization.
Key Annual Events for the byway include:
- The Bartram Bash
- The St. Johns River Bartram Frolic
- The Alpine Groves Christmas Celebrations
Engagement with Press
Al and Phyllis work with the local press on a regular basis with most articles advancing the byway mission of resource preservation, safety, and sensible growth for a wider audience.
Al and Phyllis led a team to record local oral histories of longtime residents of the byway region. The project included a total of 24 oral histories.
Ongoing training has always been important to Al and Phyllis.
Training for Sustainability
Al has worked closely with his District Scenic Highways Coordinator at FDOT over the years to train members of his organization. Al and Phyllis have taken ongoing training and recruitment seriously.
Al attended training provided by FSHP in 2022 and 2023, and attends monthly meetings of the A1A Scenic & Historic All-American Road to learn and share with peers.
An Example of Preservation in Action
The proposed boat club adjacent to the Shands Bridge (SR 16) at SR 13 and the planned gas station nearby were not in keeping with the corridor’s aesthetic and would have produced significant vehicle safety issues if approved.
Local officials were convinced by the concerns raised by Al and Phyllis and neither project advanced to construction.
Beautiful Mandarin Park on the St Johns River illustrates the natural beauty the Abbatiellos have fought to preserve and protect along the byway.
Making a Difference
While so many of the benefits Al and Phyllis bring to the byway are measurable (as seen in the tangible actions mentioned above) the intangible things they bring are equally valued by their fellow volunteers.
Their actions and spirit, their willingness to debate relentlessly in protection of the byway through decades of wins and losses has stoked the passion of a new generation of stewards.
While a byway does not guarantee protection from encroaching growth, leaders like Al and Phyllis show that if the organization represents people willing to speak up for their mission, important gains can be won.
Thanks Al and Phyllis for your steadfast and powerful dedication to the William Bartram Scenic & Historic Highway!