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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, April 15, 2018 1:00 am

Arts at center of city's revival

Michigan City's downtown is back

JOSEPH S. PETE | (Northwest) Times

MICHIGAN CITY – The pattern has played out time and time again in cities across the country: Artists start moving into a distressed, rundown neighborhood, open studios and galleries and soon it's transformed by an influx of investment and new residents.

Artists have revived many neighborhoods like Wicker Park in Chicago, the Miller section of Gary, the Historic Third Ward in Milwaukee, Fountain Square in Indianapolis and Midtown in Detroit.

Michigan City community leaders long have banked on the arts as a way to revitalize downtown, which has been rebranded as the Uptown Arts District for the last eight years after losing its position as the shopping center to the suburban sprawl. They have organized Friday night gallery walks, commissioned public sculptures, staged a winter craft beer festival and installed decorative lights and benches.

The strategy hit a milestone in 2016 when the Artspace Uptown Artist Lofts revived the historic six-story Warren Building. All 44 units for working artists sold out, and five new retailers have opened on the first floor of a downtown that still suffers from a few vacant storefronts.

The new shops, residents and cultural programs at the long-planned Artspace gallery space have injected a new vitality and energy downtown. The addition of the artists lofts has coincided with new restaurants.

Michigan City Mayor Ron Meer said several more downtown housing units are under construction and additional residential units downtown are planned. Apartment or condo buildings as tall as five or 10 stories could be built along the commuter rail line in a few years. The city also is looking to revive the defunct farmers market held Saturdays from May to October at Washington and Eighth streets and install a new plaza that would include a stage for live concerts, and potentially a splash pad, fire pits, ice skating rink and space for physical fitness activities.

“One of the biggest impacts is that we have a new population of young people to middle-aged people in our downtown,” Meer said.

Arts exhibits, poetry readings, literary festivals and other cultural events at Artspace have helped bring downtown back to the point where some people are complaining there's not enough parking, an issue the city has been looking into addressing, Meer said.

“Downtown had been dead and vacant,” he said. “It's still going through growing pains, but tourists and visitors keep coming back. ... It's contagious – you're starting to see more pride in the downtown area.”

Poet, publisher and Artspace resident Michele McDannold said the artist lofts building is home to many self-employed artists, local business members and volunteers, as well as people who work in education, nursing and social services.

“Most of the resident artists at Artspace are involved in the arts and the broader community, oftentimes in wildly different ways. This space allows those experiences and pursuits to intersect,” McDannold said. “There is a spirit of generosity and inclusiveness throughout the building in general, which also informs much of the event and exhibition planning. I am spending my dollars in neighboring businesses at least every week, often every day.”