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The faces of a new Harrisburg

Ralph, Michael and Danielle stand on the roof top garden of 1500 Condominium taking a mock selfie while this journalist snaps a photo. They're neither mocking themselves nor my assignment to discover a new Harrisburg. On the contrary, their playfulness is the energy of a new Harrisburg.

Ralph Vartan, Mike Wilson & Danielle Prokopchak, Harrisburg, PA
Ralph Vartan, Mike Wilson & Danielle Prokopchak, Harrisburg, PAMarc d'Entremont

Ralph Vartan is chairman and CEO of the Vartan Group, a major real estate developer in the city. Michael Wilson is a partner and VP of Sales and Marketing for the dynamic winery, The Vineyard at Hershey. Danielle Prokopchak promotes both Harrisburg and Hershey for Top Flight Media as communications director for this public relations company owned by WITF, the PBS affiliate for the region. They're all 20 - 30 somethings, and they're the movers that are propelling this once depressed rust belt city into the 21st century.

Up until the Second World War, Harrisburg, with a population of 100,000, was not just the capital of Pennsylvania, then one of the nation's wealthiest states. Its geographic position made it a major railroad transportation hub and proximity to the state's coal, oil and iron fields fueled booming factories. That all changed, except being the state capital, in the latter part of the 20th century.

What didn't change was the state's enviable pool of educated and entrepreneurial individuals. Take Ralph's father, John Vartan, as an example. Born in an Armenian refugee camp after the Second World War, he immigrated to the United States settling in Harrisburg. Like so many he entered the restaurant business as the city's population sank by half from both suburban flight and deteriorating housing stock. Yet John started buying that same deteriorating housing eventually acquiring over 25 acres within the city by the end of the 20th century and created the engineering services firm that bares his name.

Now the Vartan Group, which Ralph heads, is Harrisburg's largest private landowner, and the center of their holdings, midtown, is poised for major development. His recently completed 1500 Condominium is a sleek eight-story tower and the city's first new residential construction in 40 years. Its post-modern industrial interior speaks to the young professionals that nightly jam the cafes in the revitalized downtown, and the spacious apartments are nearly sold-out.

Mike Wilson, aka "Merlot Mike," was an "Army Brat." After moving to Lewisburg when his father retired, he first discovered Harrisburg on family trips to the Burlington Coat Factory outlet. He became interested in wine by doing marketing for Carley's Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar in the city's downtown. He opened The Vineyard at Hershey in 2008, which today produces 20 wines, hard cider and eight craft beers. Among the ciders is the Decider, a peanut butter caramel ditty, and craft beers such as Chocolate Milk I'd Like to Finish. He has a day job as well serving on the staff of the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education.

Danielle Prokopchak grew up in nearby Lancaster and as Director of Communications for Top Flight Media is part of a team that includes Bono Logan, the agency dog, and Earl the squirrel. All are committed to promoting this region of central Pennsylvania.

Not only are they members of the venerable Hill Society and Harrisburg Young Professionals, but Ralph and Mike saw a need to appeal directly to their own age group. The Royal Mafia Speaker Series brings together business, politicians and civic leaders to engage the city's growing number of young entrepreneurs. Even the name is hopeful with events taking place in a rehabbed house once used by a biker gang.

Dinner with this dynamic threesome was at Cafe 1500 on the ground floor of 1500 Condominium. Amanda Poindexter, the cafe's General Manager, pointed out that the eclectic menu stays true to the PA Preferred principals of using Pennsylvania grown and produced products. An attractive assortment of small plates, imaginative salads and select entrees highlight Pennsylvania as a center for farm-to-table dining long before that concept became trendy.

A pizza with a light crust was topped with fresh arugula and rich prosciutto. Strips of salmon tempura arrived in a glass with honey-wasabi sauce. A salad of sweet golden roasted beets paired well with pine nuts, apples, shallots and spicy arugula. Seafood risotto was infused with the deep flavors of seared shrimp and salmon sprinkled with fresh chives.

The cocktail revolution is popular in Harrisburg and the signature 1500 Martini is surprisingly fresh – considering this journalist prefers tradition in his drinks – with cilantro infused gin garnished with lime and a cherry tomato. Wines from The Vineyard at Hershey continue to change the popular perception that Pennsylvania cannot produce quality vintages. Firefly Red – a blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot with a small amount of cabernet franc – had a nose of berries and coffee beans with hints of blackberries and chocolate once it flowed on the tongue. The gewürztraminer is another dry wine surprise in a state that until recently favors inferior sweet varieties. Both nose and mouth experience notes of honeysuckle, lemon and grapefruit zest.

The physical revitalization of American downtowns has been going on for several decades. But just making everything attractive, keeping the streets clean and sponsoring a few festivals will not insure long term success. It's the energy of young committed individuals like Ralph, Mike and Danielle that's the essential element. Harrisburg is indeed fortunate.

Cafe 1500, 1500 North 6th Street, Harrisburg, PA 17102

Disclaimer: the author was a guest of the Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau and Cafe 1500