An expedition into Limburg’s mining past

A list of the top tourist destinations in Belgium includes Bruges, Antwerp, Ghent… and Genk? Perhaps not yet, but Genk aims to become a top draw for Limburg province and even Flanders. One of the main attractions for visitors to Genk is C-Mine, the business and recreation complex created on the site of the old Winterslag coal mine.

The C in C-Mine stands for “creativity”, which is central to all aspects of the development. The four components of C-Mine’s mission statement are culture, tourism and recreation, education, and creative enterprise. The site aims to bring together creative individuals, companies and organizations in one place to facilitate the exchange of ideas and to stimulate innovation.

The first business partner to open its doors at C-Mine in 2005 was Euroscoop, the cinema chain. Since then, the site has seen the opening of the MAD-faculty (Media, Arts and Design School), a performing arts center, and a visitor’s center. In 2010 renowned Belgian ceramicist Pieter Stockmans opened his studio and showroom, Stockmansblauw, in the mine’s former metal warehouse.

C-Mine continues to attract creative startups. The former mine offices now house the Center for Creative Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which supports creative business development. Digital marketing agency Nascom is based at C-Mine, and other new media companies may soon follow, thanks to a public-private initiative led by by Microsoft and local government. MIC (Microsoft Innovation Centre) aims to promote Flanders as a center of information technology.

Also in 2010, C-Mine received the European Stars Award for best brownfield development. (A brownfield is a former industrial site that has fallen into disuse.) The mining sites of Limburg are a unique part of the region’s cultural heritage. Most of Europe’s former mines have disappeared, so places like Winterslag offer a rare view into Belgium’s mining past.

Winterslag was one of several mines that operated in Genk and was the first mine established in Limburg, in 1917. At its height, the mine employed 6,250 miners, many of whom came from countries like Italy, Greece and Turkey for the express purpose of working in the mines. Coal production began to decline in the 1960’s and the mine finally closed down in 1988. In 1993 the remaining mine buildings were classified as protected monuments.

A chief delight in visiting C-Mine is seeing the original infrastructure preserved just as it was during the mine’s heyday. The main building, called the Energie-gebouw, houses the visitor’s center, cultural center, gallery space and a café. All of this is nestled in and among industrial artifacts such as the old compressor room, where huge machines still crouch in a vast, tile-floored hall; side rooms housing giant wheels that powered the coal lifts; and the circuit room, full of vintage electrical equipment and nineteenth-century decorative ironwork.

The area around C-Mine preserves an entire neighborhood (tuinwijk in Dutch or “garden district”) built by the mining company for their workers starting in 1912. Brussels-based architect Adrien Blomme created what is regarded as the loveliest of such mine districts in the region in a rustic English cottage style. Separate areas were designed for white-collar and blue-collar workers, but each group was provided with green spaces, private gardens, and community buildings like churches and schools.

In keeping with Winterslag’s tradition of combining private housing with commercial activities, C-Mine will soon incorporate brand-new living quarters in the middle of the former mine site. Modern townhouses and apartments are currently under construction across from Pieter Stockman’s studio, offering a unique opportunity to live alongside an architectural heritage site and various creative enterprises.

C-Mine’s newest attraction, C-Mine Expedition, will open to the public on April 29. Described as neither a museum nor a simulation, Expedition aims to bring Genk’s mining past to life through modern, interactive exhibits. Contemporary Belgian artists and designers have been enlisted to create an experience that lets visitors see, hear, and even smell the past.

The “experience pathway” starts in the Energy Building, descends underground through old mine shafts, and finally brings you outside, where visitors can ascend to the top of the highest head frame in Belgium. (The head frame was the tall structure that surmounted the mine shaft and housed the lift mechanism.) There they will enjoy spectacular views of the surrounding area from a height of 60 meters. For those who don’t aspire to such heights, there is another viewing platform at 15 meters.

Admission to C-Mine Expedition is €6 for adults, €3 for children 6-18, and free for children under 6. Admission to the visitor’s center and Energy Building is free of charge.

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