John Vartan

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Excerpts from: A QUIET BOW Ailing Vartan hands over duties to family The Patriot-News, Pennsylvania Nov 23 2004

BY TOM DOCHAT Of The Patriot-News

John O. Vartan, a nearly penniless immigrant who used his entrepreneurial zeal to become one of Harrisburg's most influential businessmen, is ending his reign over multiple enterprises because of poor health.

Vartan's oldest son, Hovig, and wife, Maral, are assuming chairman functions of Vartan's many businesses.

Vartan, 59, has been a patient in Harrisburg Hospital for three weeks in his 15-year battle with throat cancer.

Robert J. DeSousa is executive president, secretary and general counsel for The Vartan Group Inc., the umbrella company for Vartan's businesses.

More than 200 people work in the Vartan ventures, which include a bank, a restaurant, a building materials company and a construction and real estate business.

Vartan has been a dominant presence on the Harrisburg scene since the late 1970s, when he began his embattled development of a series of office buildings off North Progress Avenue in Susquehanna Twp.

He later set his sights on Harrisburg, first becoming embroiled in a legal fight with Harristown Development Corp. and Mayor Stephen R. Reed before beginning a cordial relationship with Reed that led to a series of Vartan buildings in the city. The latest of those sites is the state Department of Labor and Industry facility, 1521 N. Sixth St.

Vartan's businesses include Vartan National Bank, Parev restaurant in downtown Harrisburg and the Vartan Supply Co. along Linglestown Road in Susquehanna Twp.

The restaurant enabled The Tuesday Club to continue operations in a renovated facility along Pine Street in the city, DeSousa said. "Vartan stepped into the void and built a five-star, first-class facility" that opens at 5 p.m. for the public and is used by The Tuesday Club during the day.

Vartan has contributed heavily to charitable organizations, something his wife and son will continue to oversee. He is also involved in the Armenian Apostolic Church's worldwide activities.

Born and raised in a Lebanese refugee camp, Vartan came to the United States about 40 years ago to attend Michigan Tech, transferring from the American University of Beirut.

After graduating with a degree in civil engineering, Vartan started work at Gannett-Fleming, a Harrisburg engineering firm. He earned a master's of engineering degree at Penn State University.

Hovig said his father vowed to Gannett-Fleming that he would form his own business five years after he started working there. In 1975, he founded his first company.

The Patriot-News, PA Dec 16 2004


BY JACK SHERZER Of The Patriot-News

John O. Vartan, an Armenian immigrant who built a business empire that propelled him to celebrity status in the Harrisburg area, died yesterday in Polyclinic Hospital.

Vartan, 59, had battled throat cancer for 15 years.

The Susquehanna Twp. entrepreneur made his mark through the thousands of square feet of office space he built, and for the even greater projects he envisioned.

He was a poet and art collector who carried himself with big-city flair in a town where limousines are generally reserved for weddings. People knew it was Vartan when they saw his Rolls-Royce or Bentley drive by.

And despite the cancer that left him gaunt and constantly needing to drink water to keep his mouth and throat moist, he remained an active part of the community until he was hospitalized about a month before his death.

An engineer by training, Vartan had a willingness in the mid-1980s to take on the established power structure and build offices in the then-depressed city. Many credit his investment in Harrisburg as a key spark in the city's resurgence.

Vartan was unafraid to speak his mind or sue when he felt wronged, and he racked up his share of adversaries. But he also had supporters who point to his successful projects and charitable works.

In the early 1990s, he threatened to move to Princeton, N.J., when he became frustrated at opposition to his plans for a 17-story skyscraper capped by a revolving restaurant on Third Street.

The midstate's movers and shakers entreated him to stay. More than 100 of them affixed their names to a full-page ad in this newspaper pleading for him to change his mind.

He stayed and kept dreaming big dreams, though many were never realized.

Plans to transform 22 blocks of uptown Harrisburg into a village of affordable housing and neighborhood shops, dubbed "Vartan Village," came to naught. The city ended up swapping land with Vartan, and another developer eventually turned a smaller section into the town homes today known as Capitol Heights.

The additional 41 stories he said would top the Forum Place office building at Fifth and Walnut streets -- making it one of Pennsylvania's tallest buildings -- never happened. He sold the 10-story building to the Dauphin County Authority for $78.7 million. Last year, he was brought back to manage the building by bondholders after the authority wasn't able to attract the needed state leases and defaulted on the bonds used for the purchase.

"I think he'll be judged like all visionaries -- not everything that they envision happens," said David Black, president and CEO of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber. "But being able to get discussion going, being able to inspire the imagination of others, is not necessarily a bad thing, even though the project itself may not have happened."

Vartan put "incredible investment back into the city," Black said.

Gave back to community:

Over the years, Vartan has been called Harrisburg's version of Donald Trump.

He clearly enjoyed the limelight. He once bought a 27-foot section of stairs from the Eiffel Tower. He said it would one day grace the atrium of one of his buildings.

In 1995, he tried driving his $75,000 military Humvee across the Susquehanna River when it was exceptionally low. Chortling that it was more fun than driving his Rolls, Vartan said he wanted to see if, in an emergency, he could reach areas of the drought-parched river too shallow for boats.

But he was more than a builder with a knack for self-promotion.

He zealously guarded his private life, and friends describe him as a devoted family man.

And he was generous, many times privately and sometimes publicly giving to better the community and help those in need, including the American Cancer Society and the Harlem Boys Choir.

"I think anyone who has been successful has an obligation to return to the community some of the good fortune," Vartan once said. "You need to make a profit so you can continue doing business and continue employing people and continue doing good things."

He donated two homes and 35 acres in Susquehanna Twp. to create Widener University's Harrisburg campus law school; built the Central Allison Hill Community Center; contributed more than $3 million in gifts to Penn State Harrisburg; gave $200,000 in building supplies for South Carolina hurricane victims; gave $60,000 to help Armenian earthquake victims; and another $4.5 million to the Armenian Apostolic Church of America to create a charitable endowment.

When the city's only private business club, the Tuesday Club, was on the edge of extinction, Vartan rescued an institution that was more than 40 years old. But with an eye to the practical, he retained the private aspect of the club for lunch only and morphed it with parev, a French restaurant.

"John Vartan was a quintessential American success story," said Harrisburg Mayor Stephen R. Reed, who, like others, disagreed with the developer at times.

"Through hard work, incredible sacrifice and dogged determination, he rose from humble and adverse beginnings to become one of central Pennsylvania's most admired and respected business and civic leaders," Reed said. "John was a close, personal friend and supporter, as well as a key partner in fostering Harrisburg's renaissance."

Challenged Harristown:

Vartan was born Vartan Keosheyan in the country of Lebanon, where his Armenian parents had been moved by the French colonial government to escape Turkish oppression. He worked briefly as a steward for Middle East Airlines, then enrolled as an engineering student at American University in Beruit in 1966.

He came to the United States in 1968 and enrolled in Michigan Technological University, where he received a civil engineering degree. Vartan moved to the Harrisburg area in 1970 for a sanitary engineering job with Gannett Fleming, and also earned a master's in engineering from Penn State Harrisburg.

In 1975, he opened Vartan Associates, offering engineering services to municipalities. He also formed Gazelle Inc., a commercial construction firm, which later became Vartan Enterprises. Much of his early construction projects focused on Susquehanna Twp., along North Progress Avenue.

But it was in the early 1980s that Vartan really made his mark, with his successful antitrust lawsuit against Harristown Development Corp., which at the time controlled what could be built in the city's downtown.

Vartan opened the doors for private development. As part of the settlement, he received land along Fifth Street between Market and Walnut streets for $1. He later built the Forum Place on the property, as well as the state Public School Employee's Retirement System building, which he sold to the agency for $8.5 million.

Attorney Joseph A. Klein, who represented Vartan against Harristown but later battled the developer over his proposals in Susquehanna Twp., agreed Vartan was one of the moving factors behind the city's resurgence.

"Frankly, that was the beginning of private development, the renaissance of downtown development, which had been stymied for some time," Klein said of Vartan's lawsuit. "It was not an inexpensive venture to decide to take a legal challenge against [Harristown] and take them to court."

Wouldn't back off:

Vartan had a reputation for not backing off when he felt he was right, and he didn't hesitate to use the courts. Many times, as in the Harristown case, he won.

In another case, he even changed the makeup of his own township's political structure.

After being denied a zoning permit to build his concrete plant on Linglestown Road in Susquehanna Twp. (where his building supply warehouse is now located), Vartan sued the township in federal court for violating his rights.

He won in May 2000, with a jury finding that four commissioners improperly acted against him. Not only was he able to force three of the still-serving commissioners to resign, he also secured a $4 million verdict against the township, $3 million of which was picked up by its insurance carrier.

The concrete plant battle also pitted Vartan against another developer, Francis McNaughton, head of McNaughton Co., who was concerned over the plant's impact on his nearby housing development.

Although McNaughton wasn't part of his lawsuit, Vartan at the time accused McNaughton of pulling political strings against him, which McNaughton always denied. In 2002, Vartan also backed a candidate to run for the state House against McNaughton's son, Mark, who retained his seat after an expensive campaign. More recently, Vartan and McNaughton patched things up.

"Each of us were very tenacious in defense of a stated position, and sometimes it was very difficult to have either of us alter our points of view," said McNaughton, himself a self-made man who went from being a certified public accountant to presiding over one of the area's largest home builders.

"I think he was a man of his time, I think he was absolutely a major force in the rejuvenation of downtown Harrisburg," McNaughton said. "John went in there when others wouldn't and made large investments that contributed to the success of downtown Harrisburg, and I think that's a legacy that he alone enjoys."

McNaughton also cautioned against making too much of those projects Vartan talked of building but didn't.

"I wish I could tell you how many times we attempted to develop something and it makes it to the charts and drawings but is never consummated," he said. "I do believe [Vartan] was a visionary for this area and I think he's done a lot of wonderful things for this area."

Unrealized dream:

Perhaps Vartan's largest unrealized goal was his dream of creating his own community. After Vartan Village fell apart, in 2001 and on the heels of winning his federal lawsuit against Susquehanna Twp., he approached the township with a project called "Vartown."

The plan called for up to 1,000 residential units mixed with stores and office space on 95 acres off Linglestown Road and Progress Avenue. Many area residents balked at the congestion they feared it would bring, and the township ultimately ruled against granting Vartan a zoning change he needed to proceed. Today, it remains an open field bearing a Vartan property sign.

"[Vartown] was really going to be the crown jewel of what John's legacy was really going to be all about, he really believed in this idea of mixed use and the idea that you could live, work and play all in one area," said Bruce Warshawsky, the attorney hired by the township to oversee the hearings over Vartan's attempt to change the zoning.

He later became Vartan's friend, and the developer backed Warshawsky's unsuccessful 2002 run against state Rep. Mark McNaughton.

Warshawsky said many of Vartan's detractors were envious and unwilling to accept an outsider, particularly one they viewed as a foreigner.

"He was not willing to compromise his principles" when he felt in the right, Warshawsky said. "He wasn't afraid to use the leverage and power he had, especially once he became the icon he was."

'Loved the community':

There was another dimension to the man, though -- the family side that Vartan separated from his public business persona, Warshawsky said. Especially after surviving his first brush with throat cancer, Vartan made spending time with his family a priority.

"John Vartan was really an outstanding family man," Warshawsky said, adding the developer often worked from an office at home to be closer to his wife and children. "The one thing I think he learned from his close brush with death 15 years ago was that you can't get back that time with your kids, watching them grow up."

Vartan is survived by his wife, Maral; four children, Taleen, Hovig, Vahe and Armen; two sisters, Madeleine Keosheyan and Baydzar O. Keosheyan; and three brothers, Movses Sarkuni, Tigran J. Sarkuni and Sarko O. Sarkuni.

"His own personal tastes were minimal, but he understood what power can bring and what the illusion of power can do," said Graham Hetrick, Dauphin County's coroner and a friend of Vartan for many years.

Hetrick said he called Vartan in the early 1980s after reading a newspaper story detailing how he came to the United States and his love for this country. "I wanted to meet this guy who was an immigrant and loved America so much, and we became fast friends," Hetrick said.

When Vartan again showed his dreamer side and tried to create his own newspaper in the early 1980s -- The Pennsylvania Beacon -- to showcase only good news, Hetrick wrote a column.

Hetrick attributed much of Vartan's drive to make good and have his name in the public eye to the upheavals his family endured: "He constantly talked about this, he watched his father accumulate money and lose it and be thrown out of one country or another and that really left a long-term, enduring impression on John Vartan."

And Vartan was determined. Hetrick laughed, recalling how the two played racquetball before Vartan's cancer and how one time, a game kept going because neither would give up. It was that same determination that kept him going in the last 15 years of his life, despite the pain and discomfort of the cancer, Hetrick said.

"I truly believe he loved the community, I think he liked the people and he liked being a big fish in a little pond," Hetrick said. "He was a visionary and sometimes his vision was bigger than the community's acceptance."