Back when Ta-coumba Aiken moved to downtown St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood in the mid-1980s, he said with a laugh, artists were often seen as a mysterious and crazy bunch.

No one's laughing now. Today artists are practically community pillars, eagerly sought out as innovators who can fill hard-to-adapt historic structures like the long-vacant Schmidt Brewery and turn them into vital and lively corners of the city once again.

"St. Paul has embraced us as a viable contributor to the growth of the city," said Aiken, a painter and muralist who still lives and works in the Lowertown Lofts Artists' Cooperative. "It's been a rich urban life for all of us."

St. Paul officials announced this month that Plymouth-based developer Dominium had purchased Schmidt's bottlehouse and brewhouse on W. 7th Street for a $123 million development, with plans for 247 rental lofts and 13 townhouses, much of it affordable, available by summer 2014.

The project, aimed at artists and creative professionals, will include space for studios, galleries and performance art.

Plans also are in the works for the brewery's Rathskeller and keg house, which the West 7th/Fort Road Federation Community Council owns and wants to turn into retail and commercial space.

Yet another possibility is a new brewing incubator and Schmidt museum for the old brewery warehouse, still owned by businessmen and former site owners Bruce Hendry and Glen D. Nelson.

"I look at every thriving city in the country and there's a thriving arts community within it," Mayor Chris Coleman said last week. "It helps shape investment decisions. Things are enhanced."

The Schmidt development will join Lowertown and the University-Raymond area in the Midway district as significant artist communities in the city, but leaders aren't concerned that the new project will dilute the others.

"More is more in this case," said Joe Spencer, Coleman's arts and culture director. "We're not just attracting artists from within the city, but from around the region and the country."

"Our challenge in Lowertown is going to be a lack of space, not a lack of demand, particularly once light rail goes in," Coleman said.

Setting things in motion

Coleman isn't the first St. Paul mayor to seize upon the arts to help recharge the city.

Lowertown Lofts was built while George Latimer was in office, and Jim Scheibel oversaw the start of the city's cultural sales tax program that helps fund art-related projects.

The Peanuts Parade featuring artists' work on the beloved characters marched around St. Paul under Norm Coleman's watch, and Randy Kelly spearheaded the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, a downtown charter high school.

Using Austin, Texas, as a model, Spencer has focused on bringing more live music downtown to draw younger adults. Given the city's museums, theaters and classical music venues, he said St. Paul already does "kids and families ... and seniors really well."

Spencer has become expert at cutting red tape -- helping arts groups negotiate leases, find good retail space or even work through on-street parking restrictions.

He also maneuvered Barrio next to the Bulldog restaurant downtown, creating a cafe-style synergy credited with bringing more people to the Mears Park area.

Artists' housing in St. Paul gained momentum in the late 1980s and early '90s, when Minneapolis-based Artspace Projects developed Lowertown Lofts, the Northern Warehouse and the Tilsner Building in vintage Lowertown buildings. The city estimates that there are about 500 live-and-work units for artists in Lowertown, most in limited-equity or nonprofit-owned developments to be maintained as artists' housing.

"Those moves really set everything in motion that we're seeing today," Spencer said.

Wendy Holmes, senior vice president of consulting for Artspace, said a recent Humphrey School of Public Affairs economic development study showed that high artist density increased property values and spun off other development.

"We continue to have waiting lists for artists' units in St. Paul, which says to me there's a big demand," she said. "We don't ever have any vacancies in St. Paul except when people are moving out."

Art shows and education

A long-term use for the century-old Schmidt Brewery has eluded city leaders since it closed in 1990.

The Minnesota Brewing Co. bought the 15-acre brewery site and made beer there during the 1990s but eventually turned instead to ethanol production, a controversial move that aggravated neighbors and ended in bankruptcy in 2004.

Dominium, which had a hand in the successful Carleton Lofts housing project on University Avenue, began eyeing the brewery for artists' lofts as early as 2007.

The ensuing financial collapse pushed back those plans, but Dominium remained interested. An assortment of tax credits tied to the project's historic preservation and low-income housing aspects, with help from the city and government cleanup funds, finally sealed the $6.2 million purchase deal this month. The first units could be ready for occupancy late next year.

Aiken, who recently completed a mural on global citizenship for Macalester College, said the loft apartments will be popular.

"A lot of people try to move into our units, but we only have so many. People ask me all the time if there's a space," he said. "Housing is definitely in demand. And people are buying art."

Kevin Duchschere • 651-925-5035