MICHIGAN CITY | Construction is expected to begin in January on converting a former six story hotel into lofts for artists to live and work, a project viewed as a major springboard for advancing the revitalization already occurring in Michigan City's downtown.

A huge leap toward a ribbon cutting was made possible when Horizon Bank helped leverage a $500,000 grant recently to help offset the anticipated $17 million construction cost.

Horizon Bank is also contributing $100,000 toward the project and will provide oversight of the project to insure the renovations and usage of the facility meet the requirements of the affordable housing grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Indianapolis.

"We appreciate the opportunity to partner with our member institution, Horizon Bank, and jointly serve its community," said MaryBeth Wott, FHLBI vice president and community investment officer.

City Councilman Richard Murphy said Horizon Bank coming on as a partner in the redevelopment of the Warren Building erected in 1929 in the 700 block of Franklin Street made the project eligible for the grant.

"Without Horizon's help it would not have been possible. We're thrilled they've stepped forward to secure these funds and oversee them," Murphy said.

Another milestone came in February when the state awarded $10 million in tax credits to Artspace, a nonprofit developer planning 44 affordable housing units in the building vacated in the 1970s after downtown businesses started closing because of customers fleeing to new retail space on the city's south side and elsewhere like Merrillville and Mishawaka.

Murphy said the remainder of the financing is in place except for some "philanthropic funding" being sought to upgrade certain areas of the existing design.

Tonn & Blank Construction of Michigan City has been selected as the contractor.

"We are funded and ready to start construction," Murphy said.

Envisioned is artists generating business for downtown merchants and bringing traffic from the expansion of the Uptown Arts District that will occur by them living and working in the building.

Galleries showcasing work created by the artists are also part of the picture along with 5,800 square feet of commercial space on the building's main level.

Thomas Edwards, president and senior credit officer at Horizon Bank, said the company is continually looking for redevelopment opportunities and the one here is especially ideal because it's in the very downtown where the bank's corporate headquarters are located.

"Not only is it a great opportunity to see Michigan City establish and grow its reputation in the arts community, but it's a perfect match for our locally operated bank," Edwards said.

After its days as a hotel, the Warren Building continued to have a major economic influence on the downtown through uses like a department store, dentist office, bar and city hall.

Now, the building is viewed as one of the assets in Michigan City being reshaped in the bid to outcompete what's known as Harbor Country in the New Buffalo area for tourist dollars.

"Such an anchor over the years can now return as the fabric of the Uptown Arts District," Murphy said.