It's official: the British group Merlin Entertainment is planning to build a Legoland® Resort theme park in Charleroi, on the former Caterpillar industrial site.

Europe's number one amusement park operator, approached by the Walloon Export and Foreign Investment Agency, has chosen Wallonia to construct its 4th Lego park in Europe.

It is expected to open in 2027 and to create over 800 direct jobs. This investment of nearly 400 million euros is the 2nd largest in Wallonia in the last 10 years (after that of Google in Mons), and is a genuine boost for regional tourism. 

As such, the 14th Legoland park in the world will be located in Wallonia, and more precisely in Charleroi, since the former Caterpillar site has been chosen by the entertainment giant. Since the closure of the Gosselies plant that manufactured civil engineering equipment in 2016, more than 200 international groups had been approached to take over the vast 93-hectare site, conveniently located next to the motorway, train stations and the Charleroi airport.

Two electric car manufacturers were initially approached: First, the Chinese start-up Thunder Power, and then Tesla. Amazon, in its search to create a logistics hub, had also seriously considered the project. Apple and Google (which finally chose Farciennes), as well. As no major project had begun to take form, some actors involved in the project began to talk about dividing the site into smaller parcels. For the Wallonia Export-Investment Agency (AWEX), which was reluctant to sell off or dismantle such a site, Wallonia was lacking large spaces to attract multinationals, so it can now be relieved! Its dream of attracting a big industrial player is now going to come true. A last meeting with the group was also organised last June by the AWEX teams in London during the Prince's visit to the United Kingdom with the Walloon Minister of the Economy, Willy Borsus, and Pascale Delcomminette, the AWEX General Administrator.

In addition to Legoland, Merlin Entertainments also operates Sea Life and Madame Tussauds, for a total of 140 tourist sites around the world. With a turnover of 2 billion euro, it is the second largest theme park operator in the world, after Disney.

John Jakobsen - CEO Merlin Group

What made the entertainment giant decide to establish itself in Charleroi? The geographical location, customer potential, the size of the site and the available workforce. "Charleroi is an ideal location with a market of 21 million people within a two-hour drive"

The pandemic and the climate situation also played a role in the decision. The group, which used to build its parks near tourist destinations (such as Windsor, close to the castle, but also to London), now favours densely populated areas, sensing that people will probably prefer shorter visits to more distant trips (median margin tourism).

"Medium-distance tourism, i.e. 3 to 4 hours by car, will increase," stated Thomas Dermine, the Belgian Secretary of State for Recovery and Strategic Investments, at a press conference that was held at the Legoland Discovery Centre in Brussels. "Wallonia has a great card to play. It is a green island in the middle of a highly urbanised and industrialised area. But we don't have any really outstanding attractions. With Legoland, we will have a beacon that will attract families to come stay in Wallonia, where they will also go to Pairi Daiza Zoo, in the Ardennes, and elsewhere. It's kind of like the Primark effect, the shop sign that draws shoppers into a shopping centre."

Eric Domb, CEO and founder of Pairi Daiza Zoo, is delighted by this "opportunity to turn a one-day tourist activity into a two- or three-day stay."

Beyond Wallonia, such an attraction will effectively strengthen the tourism ecosystem of continental Europe in general, and Benelux and northern France in particular. Legoland Benelux, which, after Denmark, the United Kingdom and Germany (Bavaria), will be the brand's 4th park in Europe, is expected to draw between 1.5 and 2 million visitors per year! It will also have a hotel.

The Lego brand is also very active in the digital market (Lego digital designer), and its presence in Charleroi, even via an amusement park, could eventually help to structure the emerging gaming ecosystem in Wallonia.

In concrete terms, the investment, estimated at between 370 and 400 million euros, will be shared between the Merlin Group, SOGEPA (the Walloon public investment fund), potentially the SFPI-FPIM (the financial arm of the Belgian federal government) and a number of banking partners, with the Walloon government's share amounting to around 100 million euro. It should also be noted that, on average, Merlin reinvests 10% of its park profits into renovating them.

The park and its infrastructure will initially cover an area of 70 hectares, while the other 20 hectares will allow the project to expand in the future, which should further increase the number of jobs as an added benefit. 1,000 jobs will already be created once the site opens in the spring of 2027, including 800 direct jobs, and others via the services offered by the hotel and catering sector. 

Source: L'Echo, Trends-Tendances

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