THE BLOG
10/16/2013 11:43 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

C-mine: A Place That Welcomes Creativity in Belgium

By Sven Lenaerts

In 1988, disaster struck the city of Genk, located in the province of Limburg in the eastern hills of Belgium. The coal mines in the region were systematically closed due to a 1-2 punch of unfavorable economics and a push for cleaner energy. Like the proverbial canary in the cage, it was an early sign of the troubles to come. Ultimately, more than 40,000 people would lose their livelihoods in this bucolic area bordering the Netherlands.

At first, it seemed that the steady attrition would transform the city into a ghost town. But in 2001, Jef Gabriels, the Burgermeister of the city, believed that the coal company's remaining buildings could enjoy a different fate. He saw opportunity in the spacious structures, with impressive industrial architecture dating to 1910. Convinced of his vision and its potential, the city took possession of the site and the surrounding buildings. The location was renamed C-mine, a place that would welcome creativity.

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Investment came from across Europe, from national and local governments.  Soon, these magnificent edifices were transformed to serve the development of exciting new ideas and technologies, providing them with a very real second life. A new generation of workers would find their future not deep in the ground but in their fertile imaginations; and propel this once-thriving area to new prosperity.

The management of C-mine was determined to make it an inspiring place for entrepreneurship by creating an overall environment that was highly conducive to discovering new insights and where creativity spawned a breeding ground for opportunity.

It wasn't long before the first companies began to settle into C-mine, fulfilling its potential. Euroscoop, a cinema complex, was one of the first major companies to turn C-mine into a reality. This was followed by a number of trendy eateries. The former power station was recast as a cultural centre with multipurpose spaces.  With much of its original interior intact, including many machines, it was soon playing host to design pop-up shops and a growing number of exhibitions. Wim Dries, the current Burgermeister, explains, "We're trying to achieve a combination of culture, education, tourism, economy and entertainment on this site."

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The Media, Arts and Design Faculty, an art college that offers academic programs, identified that they were a good fit for C-mine and soon built a new, modern building close to the old mining shafts. Natural Born Architects designed the new school. They explained their approach this way:

We wanted to create a direct dialogue with the immediate industrial context of our building's location. The latter proved quite a challenge given the sheer monumentality of the old mining buildings and urged us to develop a design that could combine modesty and simplicity with the rawness and strengths needed to avoid being overwhelmed by the environment.

At the heart of C-mine is the desire to create a robust creative economy that aims to develop synergy between the new art school, their students, and the companies on site. This vision fits nicely within the curriculum of the school as it provides classic art courses such as photography, as well as modern, cutting edge courses such as multimedia design. Filip Coenen is the general manager of NASCOM, a company that provides service design, and another recent addition to C-mine. Coenen fully supports the C-mine vision, saying, "For us, collaboration with the Multimedia & Design Academy is important as a source of potential talented collaborators."

This synergy is vital according to Dries. "We want to ensure that the young talents -- who in the past have tended to leave Genk and Limburg -- remain in the region and add to its future."

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More recently, the C-mine Crib opened to support local entrepreneurship. Providing coaching, infrastructure and a network, they describe themselves as "a service center that supports startups and young creatives." Working with students from the Media, Arts and Design college, The Crib provides valuable mentoring experiences. Barbara Kok, Professor of Economics at the college, emphasizes "these interactions are all important parts of the long-term development goals for the town and the whole province."

Different kind of companies have recently moved to the C-mine Crib philosophy and approach, including a game design company called Lugus Studios, an online design shop called Mookum; and the Flanders Microsoft Innovation Center.

Forty years ago coal was the commodity that literally powered the region to prosperity. Today, creative ideas are driving new engines of growth, creating opportunities and value.  The area still has its challenges, however, as Ford Motor Company announced the closing of its Genk factory.  Early next year 10.000 people will lose their jobs.

So, the key question remains: Can C-mine continue to create enough new jobs to sustain the area? Only time will tell but, with enough creativity, the sky's the limit.  And with coal gone, it will be a much cleaner view.