Former vagrants’ colony to become hotel and restaurant

Summary

The Merksplas historical site once operating as a farm and workhouse for the area’s unemployed will be converted into a hotel, restaurant and visitors’ centre

New lease on life

A former colony for vagrants in Merksplas, in the far north of Antwerp province, will be converted into a hotel and restaurant, the province has announced. After a two-year search for a private partner, the province has reached an agreement with Corsendonk Hotels to develop the site.

The colony, which was a sort of debtors’ prison, was established in 1824 to provide a place for the poor and unemployed to live and work. When found wandering around the countryside, men would be detained and taken to the colony, where they would be put to work in the fields and workshops.

They were paid for the work and, when they had earned enough money, were allowed to leave. But many of the same men would return time and again.

The site’s Grote Hoeve (Great Farm) is listed as a monument for the historical interest of its buildings. The renovation of the farm’s 14 buildings and 40 hectares was taken over by Kempens Landschap in 2010 and a 10-year plan worked out, with a budget of more than €42 million.

Subsidies from the government’s heritage agency and from Antwerp province provide €30 million of that; the rest has to come from private partnership. Hence a two-year search for a candidate.

Corsendonk Hotels will provide hotel and restaurant facilities, cycling and walking tours and culinary and cultural events. It will also operate a visitors’ centre and a bicycle repair shop. The visitor centre and a cafe will be ready to open in early June, the hotel group said.

“We are convinced that we can ensure a sustainable future for the area together with Corsendonk Hotels,” said Merksplas mayor Frank Wilrycx. “This would never have succeeded without the support and co-ordination of Kempens Landschap and the financial resources of Antwerp province and the Flemish government.”

“We are very enthusiastic about this project,” said Dominique Nédée of Corsendonk Hotels, which also operates hotels in nearby Turnhout and Oud-Turnhout, as well as clubs and furnished apartments. “The whole site breathes history. We wanted to grasp this opportunity with both hands.”

Photo courtesy ArcheoNet Vlaanderen