During the last decade, J. Alex Hartzler has been a name known for real estate investments in Harrisburg.
Since 2005, his company — WCI Partners LP — has been aggressively buying and renovating residential and commercial properties in parts of midtown and downtown.
Before that, he was a corporate attorney, co-founder of a Harrisburg civic organization and partner in an Internet marketing firm.
He’s been active in city politics with the foundation of a political action committee that backed Mayor Eric Papenfuse. Last year, he also purchased a majority stake and became publisher of TheBurg, a free monthly Harrisburg magazine.
“I wear many hats in the community,” Hartzler said in an interview this week with the Business Journal. “I’ve always been engaged in business and now I’m in publishing, and (I’m) obviously involved in the political realm. In my mind, they all fit together very nicely in that the fundamental theme is they’re pro-community and pro making this a better place to live. And they’re very pro-Harrisburg.”
Q: You live and do business in Harrisburg. What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed so far under the new administration?
A: There has been some change. You can see that in the level of cooperation, particularly in the police. Safety was a big concern. Crime happens to be down. Whether that’s seasonal or statistical, I think there is a general perception things have changed.
I also think there is a totally different attitude. We actually heard from several potential tenants who said they were holding off in looking, but now they feel more confident in considering the city. I do think competence, and perceived competence, of local government is an important thing. I think that having the Strong Plan put in place, with the bulk of our debt problems behind us, we can look to the future. The community has come together.
How would you describe the road ahead for Harrisburg based on the mayor’s early initiatives — the war on blight, the housing court? What would a city land bank, a renewed tax abatement ordinance, maybe a City Revitalization and Improvement Zone designation, mean for the city in the long run?
The next thing you turn to are some of those economic development issues. Taking very strong action as a community leader sends a strong message that people ought to take care of their properties. Our company is invested in Harrisburg for the long term. The trends are for urban living and you see that in all the big cities. Harrisburg is not immune to this national trend. People want to live close to where they work.
In our business, for newly renovated apartments, we’re seeing record-high (rental prices). If you provide a nice product, there is a lot of potential demand out there.
In order to see large-scale development, you need to work on things like the CRIZ, like tax abatement. (But) it really does start with that basic level of competence. We’re going to be safe, we’re going to be clean. I think we build on that success.
I don’t think it’s fair or reasonable to think that everything is going to get done (right away). These are long-term trends.
What type of investment have you and the company made in the city since 2005? What is the biggest reason you continue to invest?
Back in 2005, we were doing mostly for-sale residential. We were doing townhomes. That market was greatly impacted by the recession, so we do much less on the for-sale market today and we do much more on the rental market. The for-sale market is still difficult because of the banking regulations.
As a civic-minded person, I’d like to see more people come in from the outside. I think there’s good deals to be had. (But) that’s not going to happen overnight.
You purchased TheBurg in the beginning of 2013. What has been the biggest highlight for you so far as publisher? And in an era when print is supposedly dead, what changes have you made to grow this monthly publication?
We’ve increased our page count from 32 pages to 54 pages. Our design, our photography, our writing is all better. And that comes from making the investments. My core belief was that we were missing in the space a community paper that would talk about the 95 percent that was right in the community. There are plenty of news outlets to talk about what’s wrong in the community. Let them do that. We’re going to talk about what’s right in the community.
I knew coming in we were going to take a big loss the first year. We did that, that’s fine. We’ve put that behind us. We’ve more than doubled our advertising revenue in 18 months. We’ve added “community publishers” who are other businesspeople who share my fundamental core belief that we need a publication like this to be a counter trend to some of the negativity that’s out there.
We’re going to tell the story about who is coming, not who is leaving. We’re going to tell who is staying.
Print does work in certain settings. It’s engaged reporting. I think we’re filling a niche.
Hartzler was executive vice president and partner of Webclients.net from 2000 until the company’s sale to ValueClick Inc. in June 2005.
He then founded WCI Partners LP, a Harrisburg real estate development company focused on urban revitalization. The company has made significant investments in the Olde Uptown neighborhood of midtown Harrisburg, as well as in the downtown.
The former corporate attorney graduated from Penn State with a bachelor’s degree in economics. He received his law degree from the George Washington University Law School.
Hartzler, 45, is chairman of Sarona Asset Management, a private equity firm that invests in emerging markets around the world, and Ten Thousand Villages, an international handicraft distributor and retailer.
In January 2013, he bought the majority stake in TheBurg, a free monthly community newspaper in Harrisburg.
A Harrisburg resident, Hartzler was one of the founders and first president of Harrisburg Young Professionals. He and his wife are expecting their first child in July.
WCI has developed and owns about 120,000 square feet of commercial space in the city, said President Dave Butcher. The company also has developed and sold about 75 homes in the city, as well as developed and rented about 150 residential units.
Its most recent projects include:
• 1705 N. Front St. — 10,000-square-foot renovated office building and headquarters for WebpageFX Inc.
• 2601 N. Front St. — 8,500-square-foot renovated multitenant office building that is fully leased. TheBurg is based there.
• 130 Locust St. — 9,000-square-foot converted office building with 14 apartments.
• 200 State St. — 2,000-square-foot restaurant under construction.
WCI also has another project awaiting approval at 210 Walnut St. The property is about 21,000 square feet and will be converted to 21 apartments.