MICHIGAN CITY — A historic downtown building that's been dormant for more than 20 years is coming back to life — and bringing economic development with it.

The Warren Building is back. What once housed Montgomery Ward, City Hall, medical offices and a pub will now be home to a vibrant community of artists. 

Artspace Uptown Artists Lofts is a sustainable, mixed-use community arts project — an affordable live/work facility containing 44 units of housing for low-income artists and their families.

The six-story building at 717 Franklin St. features resident gallery exhibition space and about 5,400 square feet of commercial space for creative businesses and arts organizations.

Residential units range from studios to two-bedrooms, with rents ranging from $327 to $843. And it's all located in the nationally designated Franklin Street Historic District. 

"We're really excited about the project," said Sarah White, director of property development for Artspace, the owner of the building. Artspace is a Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization that has developed similar arts facilities nationwide.

"City leadership and the local business community has really been focused on economic development, and their belief is that the arts is a key economic driver that will help revitalize downtown.

 "We consider ourselves a real estate developer for the arts," she said.

"Our mission is to provide affordable spaces for artists and arts organizations and aligns with some of the goals of what the city was looking to do in terms of arts-driven economic development downtown."

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During an open house on Thursday, City Controller Rich Murphy called the project "an amazing journey." Murphy was a councilman who helped spearhead the project eight years ago. It began with purchasing the building from a developer "who was doing nothing with it," followed by acquiring tax credits, help from the redevelopment commission and corporate sponsors. 

"We knew about Artspace because where they go, economic development happens," he said. 

White said signs of a comeback were already being seen in the district, but getting the Warren Building back online paves the way for "catalytic" investments in the area.

"Since the project has been funded, there's probably been 10 new restaurants open up in the downtown area," he said. 

Catherine MacDonald, the new property manager of the building, grew up in Michigan City and called the artists lofts project one of the most exciting things to happen there.

"I'm really excited about all the applicants," she said. "Everybody has been full of energy, and they're really talented people." 

MacDonald said they hope to have people moving in by Feb. 22.

Prospective tenants can download applications and information packets at www.artspace.org/uptown. Applications are also available at Michigan City Hall, Lakeshore Coffee and Michigan City Public Library. 

Additional information is available at www.artspace.org.

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Lake County reporter

Rob covers urban affairs and other matters in Crown Point, St. John, Winfield and beyond. Previously he covered Valparaiso, Hammond, Gary and East Chicago. He's also written for various magazines and pens a culture blog for The Times.