Tech entrepreneurs bring Ghent Winter Circus back to life

Where once lions and elephants paraded, the inhabitants of Ghent will soon be able to admire technological feats. ‘A lot is already happening in Ghent, but we still needed a place with a face.’

Students, shoppers and tourists ensure a pleasant bustle in Gentse Zuid, the neighborhood known for the historic Vooruit building and the futuristic library De Krook. The fact that a third iconic place is located between these two landmarks is an open secret, mostly known by older city dwellers.

The Winter Circus, a stone circus building built in the late nineteenth century to offer the inhabitants of Ghent some exotic entertainment even in the cold season, opened to a limited extent the doors of curious visitors after a thorough renovation. But in almost two years, the circus should once again be alive, as a meeting place for technological entrepreneurs, knowledge workers and artists.

The city of Ghent, which bought the building in 2005, is having exclusive discussions about this with TENT, a consortium of well-known tech entrepreneurs and knowledge institutions (see box† TENT is the only remaining candidate following a call from the city to operate the site through a long lease.

Who participates?

  • The consortium TENT (Together for Entrepreneurship, Networking and Technology) is dependent on a group of well-known (tech) entrepreneurs: Louis Jonckheere and Pieterjan Bouten (Showpad), Lorenz Bogaert (Netlog), Piet Maes (Sofico), Peter Hinssen (nexxworks). ), Koen De Clercq (Objective International), Alain De Taeye (TomTom), Griet Nuytinck (Anacura), Jeroen Lemaire (In The Pocket), Nele Van Damme og Koenraad Belsack (Upgrade Estate), Matthias Geeroms (Ota Insight), Jonas Dhaenens (Combell), Bruno Lowagie and Ingeborg Willaert (Screensaver).
  • The knowledge institutes UGent, KU Leuven and imec also participate, as do Voka East Flanders, the city of Ghent and IJV-IFAS vzw (the organizer of Jaarbeurs Gent and Mahy Expo).
  • The Winter Circus is run by a team of seven people who are still being put together. Independent operators are being sought for the concert hall and the catering industry.

© Wouter Van Vooren

Behind an unobtrusive entrance gate in Lammerstraat lies the Winter Circus’ eye-catcher: the middle track. Where lion tamers and acrobats used to perform their tricks, there is now a 1,200 m² covered space, plenty of daylight thanks to the impressive glass dome. Two old petrol pumps and a marked ramp are reminiscent of the post-war period, when car entrepreneur Ghislain Mahy turned the circus into a garage and a giant car showroom.

elephants

‘This place will be a public meeting place that we want to connect with De Krook. There will be space for catering, events and digital art. Hopefully we can also involve the people of Ghent in this, ‘says Jeroen Lemaire, CEO of developer In The Pocket and one of the shareholders in TENT.



The main line will be a public meeting place, which we want to connect with De Krook. There will be space for catering, events and digital art. Hopefully we can involve Gentenaars in this.

Jeroen Lemaire

Shareholder TENT

The entire building covers 13,000 m² and contains many nooks and crannies that allow for a varied interpretation. Historical details are preserved here and there, such as the sloping alley that once led elephants to the arena, the feeding troughs of the circus animals and the Garage Mahy fat graves. Below the square is a concert hall for 500 people, which is also accessible via Miriam Makebaplein.

Antidisciplinary

© Wouter Van Vooren

On the higher and lower floors, there will be space for offices, seminar rooms and Fab Labs, which manufacture workshops with digital tools. Lemaire hopes to get innovators from very different sectors to work together on ‘antidisciplinary’ projects, following the example of the well-known Media Lab from the American institute MIT.

Ghent has been a breeding ground for biotechnological research since the 1980s. In the digital age, it also turned out to be a nursery for innovative software companies, ranging from Tele Atlas (now part of TomTom) and the former Netlog to Showpad and In The Pocket.



Ghent has the ambition to be a European technology capital. It will be a place where we will also spread it.

Sophie Bracke

Ghent’s Councilor for Economics, Entrepreneurship and Digitization

“From the beginning, the intention was to establish a tech hub in the Winter Circus. Ghent has the ambition to be a European technology capital. It will be a place where we will also spread it, «says councilor Sofie Bracke (Open VLD), who is responsible for Finance, Entrepreneurship and Digitization, among other things. The importance of having your own ‘face’, as Lemaire calls it, also lies in attracting scarce talents from abroad. The Winter Circus will do for Ghent what Station F does for Paris or RDM for Rotterdam.

Tech tour

“The plans arose during a series of tech trips to other cities that we organized with Voka,” says Hilde Schuddinck, director of the Ghent region of Voka East Flanders. ‘When we found out that the city had plans for a technology center in the Winter Circus, we started talking to more people about setting up a consortium.’

© Wouter Van Vooren

The initiative caught on. The city of Ghent also decided to become a shareholder in TENT with a contribution of 1 million euros. An experienced event partner also came on board with the organizer of Jaarbeurs Gent. This opens up the possibility of organizing a technology event in Ghent that can build on the memory of Flanders Technology, the leading technology fair of the 1980s.

TENT has a budget of 7 million euros for the complete completion of the Winter Circus and expects to start in early 2024. The city, which has already invested around 30 million in the renovation, has rented the place for 75 years – with the possibility of extension to 90 years. The long-term was necessary to make it financially possible for the operators, it reads. Bracke also promised that Ghent, spread over the first five years, will contribute 875,000 euros from the cities’ spearhead fund to soften the basic lease.

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