Belgium makes place for urban enterprises

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The city of Liège in the south-east of Belgium is making place for small businesses to grow their activities as part of a long-term strategy to revive the economic life of urban areas, using money from the EU.

Like other European cities, Liège is facing major challenges in adapting to industrial restructuring and replacing jobs that have been lost in recent decades, especially in the steel-making sector.

As part of a strategy to bring businesses back into the heart of the city, and encourage them to grow and create much-needed jobs, the public authorities are setting-up business parks in urban neighbourhoods.

Like other European cities, Liège is facing major challenges in adapting to industrial restructuring and replacing jobs that have been lost in recent decades, especially in the steel-making sector.

As part of a strategy to bring businesses back into the heart of the city, and encourage them to grow and create much-needed jobs, the public authorities are setting-up business parks in urban neighbourhoods.

Pieper is the name of a business park in the St. Leonard district, only 2km from the centre of Liège, next to the banks of the Meuse river. The park is on a former industrial site, which was cleaned-up and made ready for the arrival of new businesses, with all the necessary infrastructure including a new road.

The financial costs of cleaning-up the site were covered with a grant of €96,377 from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), and an equivalent amount from the regional government of Wallonia.

The Pieper site has been divided into 10 plots. At the end of 2010, five of these plots had already been sold to small businesses including: a heating and ventilation company, an electrician, a furniture maker, a glazier and window-maker, and a company specialising in the installation of solar panels.

Benefits for the local area

"These are activities which don’t cause problems for local residents, and so they are compatible with the urban environment: not making too much traffic or too much noise," explains Frédéric Van Vlodorp of the economic development agency for the province of Liège (SPI+).

The agency has established more than 50 business parks throughout the province, working in partnership with municipal councils and the regional government of Wallonia.

According to Van Vlodorp, urban business parks are especially suitable for "small-scale skill-based activities such as a window-maker, a heating installer, or a joiner, who in general also have their clientele in urban areas".

The business park is expected to bring positive benefits to whole area. "It’s a way to bring economic activity back to the neighbourhood, so it’s also good for local retailers," says Van Vlodorp.

The SPI+ agency offers a wide range of services to businesses in the province of Liège, and helps entrepreneurs to choose the best location for establishing their companies.

The five businesses based at the Pieper site currently employ a total of 30 people. It is hoped that more businesses will arrive in 2011, but this also depends on the economic situation. "The interest is there, but the crisis has slowed-down investments across all of our business parks," says Van Vlodorp.

Former industrial or 'brownfield' sites are considered the best places to set-up new urban business parks. "For the neighbourhood, it has a double effect, because first we clear-up the site and then we help new businesses to come in, which are well suited to the local area," explains Van Vlodorp.

"We sell the plots on the condition that the companies build right up against one another, so that we end up with a street of businesses," says Van Vlodorp. "It is therefore in conformity with the surroundings, and it also saves a lot of space, so we can fit many businesses into a relatively small area."

The regional development agency uses the revenue it gets from selling plots of land to finance the creation of more business parks. In this way, the money can be re-utilised for maximum benefit.

Facing major challenges

The largest town in the south-east of Belgium, Liège played a key role in Europe’s industrial revolution during the 19th century, when it became an important centre for the metal industry.

Later, in the second half of the 20th century, Liège along with many other European cities faced major challenges in adapting to industrial restructuring, new technologies and the growth in global trade.

Today, Liège remains one of Belgium’s most important urban centres. The city, with a population of 190,000, is the economic hub of the Province of Liège, which has more than 1 million inhabitants.

According to official EU figures, the unemployment rate in Belgium was 8.5% in October 2010, compared to an average unemployment rate of 9.6% for the European Union as a whole (EU 27).

In the region of Wallonia, the official unemployment rate – as it is measured in Belgium – is around 12%. The city of Liège has an unemployment rate of around 25%.

The province of Liège is part of the Meuse-Rhine Euroregion, which includes neighbouring parts of Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany with a combined population of 4 million people.

Pieper business park was selected for a special mention by the jury of the RegioStars Awards 2010.

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