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CPBJ Extra Blog

'Serious' effort begins to strengthen Harrisburg's economic base

By , - Last modified: August 22, 2012 at 9:17 AM

The word many people avoid when talking about Harrisburg is “potential.”

Jason Scott

It's hard not to discuss the capital city's debt-ridden incinerator, which has pushed it to the brink of bankruptcy.

It's also hard not to focus on the city's limited revenue sources and its ability to overcome current and future structural deficits.

Nearly half of the city's properties are tax-exempt. The state holds a large majority of those deeds.

It's easy to live in the present and play up the gloom-and-doom scenario.

But if you talk to prominent developers like H. Ralph Vartan, the conversation about Harrisburg centers mainly on "untapped potential for greatness" and a long-term vision.

Vartan is the CEO of Vartan Group Inc., which is based in Susquehanna Township but is among the largest private landholders in the city.

The firm just wrapped up its 1500 Project, a mixed-use building at Sixth and Reily streets that overlooks Midtown. The structure is across the street from the site of a future federal courthouse project in an area prime for new construction and redevelopment.

John O. Vartan, Ralph's late father and the company's founder, began buying properties in the North Sixth Street corridor about 20 years ago. That part of the city has access to the downtown, Interstate 81 and Routes 22/322.

Ralph has continued to purchase properties in that corridor because of its development potential.

Hoping to do more to strengthen the city's economic base, Vartan is leading a new economic development advisory council.

The private group was assembled recently at the request of Mayor Linda Thompson. It is made up of business leaders, including developer Dan Deitchman, other entrepreneurs, a chamber of commerce executive, a banker, a downtown pub owner and the head of a nonprofit community housing development corporation.

David Schankweiler, publisher and CEO of Journal Multimedia, the parent company of the Central Penn Business Journal, also is on the committee.

The nine-member group's task is to advise and assist the mayor with economic development policies and priorities in the city, Vartan said. Implementing a proactive economic development strategy is part of the city's court-approved recovery plan.

"While some projects within the city have come to fruition over the past decade, currently, the city of Harrisburg is at a crossroads for economic and community development," the plan reads.

Vartan said he is "absolutely confident" the group will find long-term solutions that lead to fiscal stabilization in Harrisburg.

"We are hard at work. It's a fluid process," he said.

The group began meeting this month.

"It isn't a casual committee," he said, describing it as a "serious" effort to make recommendations that should foster positive development.

City spokesman Robert Philbin, who will help facilitate advisory efforts along with COO Ricardo Mendez-Saldivia, said the administration wants to create an environment of best practices as it relates to future development in Harrisburg.

What do you think? Will city business leaders find realistic solutions to bolster the tax base and help sustain core municipal services?

Jason Scott covers state government, real estate and Dauphin County. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at You can also follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal.

Click here to download a PDF file of the court-approved recovery plan for Harrisburg.

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Jason Scott

Jason Scott

Jason Scott covers state government, real estate and construction, media and marketing, and Dauphin County. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at Follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal. Circle Jason Scott on .

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