The Belgian region of Wallonia may be armed with plenty of modern-day incentives to lure outside investors, but it also can point to evidence from history that it’s a coveted area.
Belgium brands itself as the crossroads of Latin and Nordic cultures, a truly cosmopolitan place where a company can credibly be called a pan-European enterprise.
That’s in part because for much of its history, the country now home to the European Union government was conquered by foreign powers.
“This is the first proof of the attractiveness of Belgium,” joked Alphi Cartuyvels, head of European and American investments at the Walloon Export and Investment Agency, or AWEX.
The organization aims to attract investment to Wallonia, the predominately French-speaking region in the southern part of the country that joins Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and the Brussels-Capital region to make up the country.
Mr. Cartuyvels and his team employed a dose of levity in pitching Wallonia to an Atlanta audience this month at a roadshow event backed in part by the Consulate General of Belgium here.
“We guarantee total confidentiality, and unfortunately, our services are free of charge,” Mr. Cartuyvels said at one point to laughs from the audience, noting how Wallonia helps companies pay as little tax as possible on their operations in the region. “Within a fortnight,” AWEX can provide customized research on workforce, taxes and real estate, he said.
That aggressive stance comes because Wallonia now seeks investors, not invaders. At the Metro Atlanta Chamber, AWEX officials introduced the region of 3.6 million people as a “hidden treasure” they hoped to unveil to an audience of mostly service providers and economic developers.
Wallonia isn’t totally alien to Atlanta. The region had a trade and investment office here as early as 1995 until it closed a few years ago and gave responsibility for the state to its Houston office. The former director, Djazia Filoso, still lives here and continues to work for the agency, even without the physical location.
Still, knowledge about the Walloon region sometimes lags that of Flanders, which is home to the Port of Antwerp and encircles the Brussels-Capital enclave. Fewer know of Wallonia’s major cities: Liege, the regional capital of Namur and Charleroi.
“We have a lot to offer, but people do not know it,” Mr. Cartuyvels said.
Belgium and other European countries are pitching themselves anew as stalwart gateways to the continent as the United Kingdom prepares to exit the European Union.
Indeed, many of Wallonia’s advantages stem from being within Belgium, which has a talented, stable workforce and the logistical advantages of being centrally located on the continent.
Belgium’s cultural diversity also sometimes makes it a test market for Europe, including for companies like Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co., which was set to share its local experience at the event before Vice President Jean Eylenbosch had to cancel his speech.
The Belgian regime is also competitive — a 25 percent standard rate with many legal methods for lowering it, 90 double taxation treaties and incentives based on property and equipment purchases, liberally defined research and development activities and income derived from intellectual property. There even exists an expatriate provision that allows workers based in Belgium to only pay income tax on the days that they work in the country, according to Jean-Charles van Heurck, an EY tax professional.
Belgium is also a key player in chemicals, logistics, aerospace, pharmaceuticals, flooring and a variety of other sectors, with investment consistently flowing into Georgia in all of the above.
But Wallonia — which borders France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands — also has its own charms, from its welcoming culture to its newly upgraded airports, including the cargo sorting hub TNT Express (soon to be FedEx) operates at Liege, Mr. Cartuyvels said.
He pointed to companies like GlaxoSmithKline, which makes half of the vaccines used by American children at its Walloon facility, and Google, which has a massive data center in the region. Skechers, the U.S. shoe brand, has its European distribution center in Wallonia, showing the power of its waterway connections to the Port of Antwerp.
Jim Blair, head of site-selection firm Navigator Consulting, also praised Belgium, where he lived for 18 years while working for the state of Georgia’s former European investment office.
He noted the country’s history as a 19th-century industrial hub for coal, steel and manufacturing, as well as its prominence in the aerospace and defense sector. FN Herstal, a manufacturer of weapons based in Wallonia, now has a factory in Columbia, S.C.
Overall, Belgium is a friend of Georgia and an innovative place that always adapts, Mr. Blair said. It’s often seen as a fairy-tale destination because of its old cities and beautiful architecture, but it’s as modern as any place in the world.
“Just forget what you have read in the history books and seen in film because Belgium will continue to surprise you.”