Coal to digital: Waterschei mine becomes new business park

Summary

The redevelopment of the Waterschei mine site in Genk is the latest project aimed at turning Limburg’s old industrial infrastructure into a modern, multi-use research centre and business park

New century, new purpose

Earlier this month, the city of Genk celebrated the grand opening of Thor Central, the headquarters of a new research centre and business park dedicated to renewable, clean energy.

Thor Park has been developed on the site of the Waterschei coal mine, which closed in 1987. It currently encompasses a research facility called Energyville – a collaboration of the University of Leuven, Hasselt University and Flemish research institutes Vito and imec – as well as a start-up incubator called Incubathor.

Thor Central (pictured) was originally the mine’s main building, housing the offices of the director and engineers. These former offices and common areas, which total 10,000 square metres, have been completely renovated and pressed into service as a modern meeting centre.

Another part of the building that housed the mine workers’ showers and lockers, and the room where the miners’ work lamps were stored is still undergoing renovation.

The ground floor encompasses a 350-seat auditorium with all the latest tech amenities, plus a reception desk, cloakroom and catering area. The upper floors are home to 16 meeting and conference rooms.

A crack in the armour

There are two large halls for receptions and events, and two restaurants: a casual eatery open during lunchtime, and a more upscale option with a lounge and bar that’s open for dinner seven days a week. The rooms can be rented by companies or individuals who just need a conference room, or the entire building can be hired for large events and conferences.

Paul Olaerts, head of economic development for the city of Genk, explains that the building is more than a congress centre. “We are trying to build a kind of community here,” he says. “The people working in Thor Park can meet here and talk about what they’re working on. The idea is, if you share an apple, you each have half. If you share an idea, you now have two ideas.”

During the opening festivities, guides were on hand to point out the building’s original architectural features. In the Grande Salle (so called because the mine’s owners and directors were French-speaking), the cream and ochre paint colours and the original terrazzo floor have been restored.

We are trying to build a kind of community here. The people working in Thor Park can meet here and talk about what they’re working on

- Genk official Paul Olaerts

Overhead, a large skylight allows natural light to illuminate the space and the two levels of offices around its perimeter. In the former director’s office, delightful Art Deco details have been preserved, including stained-glass windows, a tiled fireplace and carved flower panels in the wooden doors. The Barbara Hall, named for the miners’ patron saint, features beautiful decorative iron railings and a curved, glass-tiled roof.

One of the challenges in restoring the 100-year-old structure is still visible: a 20-centimetre crack runs the length of the building from floor to ceiling. The building literally split into two over time, most likely caused by an unstable ground, the result of mining practices.

The architects have chosen to either cover the crack with glass or leave it open in most places, so that it’s possible to peek through the gap in the walls and floor.

Open to the public

In the future, Thor Park will also welcome an educational component called T2-Campus, dedicated to technology and innovation, especially in the energy sector. In collaboration with the city of Genk, the local agency for entrepreneurial training Syntra Limburg and employment agency VDAB, this school will offer training in electronics, IT, new energy technologies and energy-efficient building materials.

The final component of the redevelopment is a business park covering 36 hectares, called MoThor. The offices are geared towards companies active in IT, clean energy, engineering, smart grids and other new technologies.

The various components of Thor Park are situated in a green space with picnic areas, cycling paths and walking trails. The former mine’s old slag heaps form the backdrop for a nature and recreation zone covering 30 hectares. The park as well as the common areas and restaurants of Thor Central are open to the public.

Echoes of the past

There is a certain symmetry in redeveloping a former coal mine as a research and business centre dedicated to clean energy. In its heyday, the mine provided jobs for 16,000 workers. It’s hoped that Thor Park will eventually house 7,000 workers in the most innovative and productive sectors of the economy.

The redevelopment of the Waterschei mine is the latest project aimed at turning Genk’s old industrial infrastructure into modern, multi-use business engines. More than 10 years ago, C-Mine was conceived as a creative hub and cultural centre on the site of the former Winterslag mine. That mine closed in 1986, one year before Waterschei closed.

Today, C-Mine houses a cinema, exhibition space, restaurants, the media and design faculty of the Luca School of Arts, and an incubator for start-ups in creative industries called C-Mine Crib. A third mine, Zwartberg, will eventually reopen as a sort of exotic animal park and art studio under the direction of Limburg-born conceptual artist Koen Vanmechelen.  

Many of the workers who lost their jobs then were descendants of the foreign workers who came to Limburg in the last century to work in the coal mines

The redevelopment of Genk’s former mining sites, including Thor Park, is being subsidised by Salk, the €217 million investment plan initiated by the Flemish government in the wake of the 2014 closing of the Ford auto plant, which cost the region 10,000 jobs.

Many of the workers who lost their jobs then were descendants of the foreign workers who came to Limburg in the last century to work in the coal mines. Once again, Genk is hoping to reinvent itself and its work force, and thereby adapt to a changing economy.

Thanks to investment in infrastructure and innovation, the city has a shot at becoming a European hub for clean energy and other emerging technologies.

Meanwhile, the city is richer by one very impressive and beautifully restored building. Thor Central is the crowning jewel of Thor Park, harking back to the mine’s glory days and signalling the future ambitions of the project.

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