Once an industrial powerhouse and a major steel producer for Europe and beyond, Wallonia – the French-speaking region of Belgium – has had to embrace the challenge of redefining itself over recent decades. Like other regions faced with similar challenges, Wallonia has concentrated on developing a fostering environment for high-end, value-added industries, such as the information and communication technology (ICT) , biotechnology, agrotech and aerospace sectors.

Like Belgium in general, the region is packed with cultural and architectural treasures in keeping with its rich history. While Wallonia is not yet on the highest profile tourist trail, discerning travellers are likely to discover its splendours in increasing numbers.

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The region is also putting itself on the business map. Through the judicious planning and creation of science and technology parks, urban developments, investment in logistics, infrastructure and training, it has attracted an exciting and diverse range of investors. While luring household names such as Microsoft, Google and the European Space Agency, it has also encouraged smaller innovation-driven companies, a substantial number of which have spun out of local higher education institutions. Other businesses, from Europe and elsewhere in the world, appreciate the region’s long-term approach to development.

Baffling Belgium

Small and complex, Belgium sometimes seems a bit baffling to outsiders. Brussels, the capital city, is well known as the headquarters of the European Commission. Quite often, Belgians themselves think more readily in terms of the country’s constituent parts than they do its whole. Flemish Belgium, or Flanders, to the north, is Dutch speaking and economically is larger, and arguably more self-sufficient, than Wallonia.

The “isle of Brussels” is linguistically mixed. Wallonia is mostly Francophone but is also home to a small German-speaking minority in the east. What all the regions are able to share, however, is an excellent location for logistical purposes, with close access to some of Europe’s most important economies: Germany, the Netherlands and France.

Each region is further split into provinces. Walloon consists of five: Liège, Hainaut, Namur, Luxembourg (not to be confused with the neighbouring Grand Duchy of the same name) and Walloon-Brabant. And while they all have their own investment profile and economic requirements, each recognises the need for the provinces to work together toward Wallonia’s development as an investment destination.

The resulting dynamic – one of friendly rivalry – appears to be working. Each province has created, in effect, its own investment agency working alongside provincial government officials but also under the auspices Awex, a pan-Walloon body that promotes exports and invites investors across the board.

Long-term potential

The emphasis on high tech is shared by all. The incentive for investors also lies in the provincial and regional government’s commitment to building a long-term economic potential and infrastructure that will be flexible and responsive enough to the needs of its citizens and the surrounding region.

Passengers arriving at the new rail terminal at Liège station will get an immediate sense of this commitment to modernity. Eye-catching and unique, the Santiago Calatrava-designed station is part of an extensive modernisation programme that promises to create unique retail opportunities. It is also a logistics hub, with immediate linkages to the motorway from the station itself.

The project is considerable, and when complete it will include residential complexes, retail and office developments and pedestrianised spaces, with car traffic, for the most part, moved underground.

This holistic approach is a general rule. The challenge facing the province of Liège is arguably more complex than those faced by its rivals. Home to some 200,000 inhabitants, Liège possesses a ‘big city feel’ and a centuries- old industrial heritage. Having built its fortune on the back of a steel and armaments industry, for decades it was of strategic importance for Napoleonic France, and later for Belgium’s own industrial development.

Strategically blessed by its location on the banks of the Meuse river, which meets the North Sea at Rotterdam and connects the town with Maastricht, Liège is within easy reach of Aachen in Germany, Lille and Paris in France, and the Netherlands.

But the end of heavy industry in Liège created a new imperative – that of finding alternative employment for its traditional workforce, as well as a substantial immigrant population that had been drawn there by the steel mills at the tail end of their operational lives. The industry is not entirely defunct, as Arcelor Mittal has a steelworks in the city, but while the company is a significant employer, steel is no longer the bedrock of the local economy it once was.

However, together with high levels of unemployment and its associated municipal ills, there are opportunities. Thibault Jaspar, an economic councillor for the City of Liège, says the city believes the district of Droixhe holds some of the greatest potential for redevelopment. Droixhe was once regarded by Liège’s better-off citizens as a no-go area. Its high-rise 1970s tower blocks were considered an eyesore that housed a problem population who were increasingly marginalised and disengaged from the rest of the city’s economic life.

Now the district is in the middle of a renaissance. Some of the tower blocks are being refurbished, others will be destroyed and new facilities created. These include retail opportunities which should help redeem Droixhe’s tarnished reputation.

The intention is to recast the district so it attracts young professionals looking for high-quality and affordable housing, but also to generate new business. Coca-Cola has a production and distribution unit located in Liège. Real estate adviser DTZ, office supply company Lyreco, the optical manufacturing company Coopervision and the FN small arms manufacturing group are among the big name companies in close proximity. As an ongoing project, Droixhe also promises to create opportunities for real estate and other investors. Government backing should generate the right kind of enthusiasm for companies looking for sustainable return with a low-risk profile.

Urban transformation

The notion of sustainability is at the forefront of all development projects in the region. Laurence Slangen of Spi+, the development agency for the province, says the local government is working hard to attract families back to the city centre, focusing on brownfield developments. One example is the transformation of an old gun-making complex, which dates back to the 19th century, into a new hub of artisanal activities. The over-riding philosophy that investors will need to appreciate is that of ‘using less land, but using it better’.

The emphasis on regeneration and high value-added industries holds throughout the region of Walloon; each province is able to showcase its own success stories – both those that are already delivering, and those in the pipeline. In the neighbouring province of Namur, Stephanie Bonmarriage of Bureau Economique de la Province de Namur (BEP), says her organisation is creating a new suite of ecologically sensitive real estate and other development opportunities.

Foremost of these is a development within the town of Andenne. This includes revamping the town centre to include new pedestrianised areas, the renovation of a former school, the restoration of an art deco swimming pool, some 250 new homes, business premises, a cultural meeting point and underground parking.

The project will be undertaken as a public-private partnership, with work commencing in 2010, and should draw interest from contractors with a sophisticated understanding of forward-looking urban development. A business park dedicated to promoting, developing and exemplifying eco-construction methods should also draw interest.

Investor opportunities

The theme is being developed elsewhere in the region – both in Liège, and in the province of Luxembourg, where investment agency Idelux is helping to attract investors with a new range of opportunities. Arguably the most notable of these is the Galaxia business park – a €15m business park dedicated to space-related sciences and applications.

Largely funded by the government of Wallonia, but with some backing from both Idelux and the European Regional Development Fund, when complete, the two-storey building will generate all its own electricity through its use of photovoltaic panels – the dominant architectural feature of the otherwise largely wooden structure. Galaxia boasts a direct fibre-optic link to the European Space Agency ground station in Redu, and two major space sector companies, Vitrociset and SES Astra, have already taken up residence.

From her office near Charleroi, Cecile Hong of Igretec, the economic development agency for the Charleroi region and South Hainaut, looks out over the Aeropole Science Park, one of a total of 18 business parks for which the agency has direct responsibility. Aeropole shares a site with Charleroi Airport – known to some as ‘Brussels South’ and a major logistics hub for the region. Ryanair uses the airport, as do Wizzair, Jet Blue and others – including cargo carriers.

Ms Hong says that the proximity to the airport has proved to be a great boost for the business park, and adds that the part-EU-funded park has already sold almost 90% of lots, and that Igretec is currently building an extension.

Unsurprisingly, Aeropole has drawn a fair number of companies in the field of aeronautics, including Cenaero, an applied research centre dedicated to the development of multidisciplinary simulation software; Belgian-owned Sabca, which specialises in aerospace design; and the aeronautical construction company Sonaca. But agro-food, biotechnology, materials development and ICT also thrive here.

“We have some 500,000 people living in the Charleroi area so the labour pool is strong,” says Ms Hong. She outlines other incentives on offer to potential investors. Since Charleroi is traditionally one of the poorest parts of Wallonia, the government gives grants covering up to 25% of the cost of initial investment if all criteria are fulfilled. Companies will also benefit from the presence of a local agency responsible for the provision of staff, and creation of staff training programmes to ensure personnel and vacancies are well matched.

No culture clash

Wallonians are keen to capitalise on all their assets – and see no obvious distinction between exploiting art and technology in this regard. Paul Keiser of Technocite – located in the city of Mons, the largest urban centre in the province of Hainaut – says in 2003 the decision was made to become a candidate for European City of Culture status in 2015, while interpreting the word ‘culture’ very broadly.

“We saw ‘culture’ as being a tool for business development. The city of Lille [in France] did this very successfully in 2004, and we realised that through using the candidature we could boost culture, our economy and also technology.”

Four years ago, the decision was made to focus on the digital media sector as the vehicle for the city’s renaissance and substantial resources have been applied to increasing the ICT literacy of the region’s workers. ICT-focused continuing education is heavily subsidised all the way up to PhD level – an investment which Mr Keiser says has paid off.

Google has recently purchased 100 hectares of land on which to build its European Data Centre, and Microsoft has created an innovation centre and incubator in the province.

Job creation

Both developments have encouraged job creation, stemming the flow of skilled people who might otherwise have left the region in search of new opportunities.

“One of our goals,” says Mr Keiser, “is to shorten the timeline between the introduction of new technology and its general application within the labour force.”

As a region, Wallonia has a very particular investment profile: a relatively small area, with a high population density, and a well-qualified workforce with competitive labour costs and excellent connectivity to surrounding regions and countries. Its provincial governments are taking an intelligent and measured approach to social and economic development.

Evidently, investors have a role here, if they are prepared to adopt a long-term outlook and are committed to meeting high standards of innovation on all fronts.