The agenda item that had to be voted on was the purchase of 100% of the shares of the Kasteel van Westmalle vzw by Stichting Kempens Landschap, in accordance with the cooperation agreement between Kempens Landschap and the municipality of Malle. At the time of the sale, the assets of the company will consist of the castle building, the domain and the round building. The forester’s house, the stock portfolio and cash are not included.
The contribution of the municipality of Malle amounts to 853,050 euros, partner Kempens Landschap contributes 2.5 million euros and is also looking for the best subsidy channels to contribute to the approximately 4 million euros in restoration costs. Alderman for Finance Dirk Gerinckx (N-VA) explained that a loan will be taken out over several years. According to N-VA, the normal planned investments will continue as usual.
However, coalition partners DBM and CD&V fear that the village center renewal of Westmalle, which they estimate at 70 million euros, will be jeopardized. The purchase of the castle does not fit in with DBM’s vision. They want to give priority to the planned investments in, among other things, new youth rooms, a new sports hall, a new library, a new fire station and an extension of the town hall in Westmalle. CD&V also wants to give priority to the planned investments for youth, sports and culture. “We don’t want taxes to skyrocket. (…) But if the vote turns out to be approved, we will support the decision,” said alderman Yannis Leirs (CD&V).
“Do not ignore the residents’ survey”
Mayor Sanne Van Looy (N-VA) thinks that amount of 70 million is a large overestimate and does not know where it comes from. She believes that the residents’ survey cannot simply be ignored. “The future of Westmalle Castle is very much alive to the people. 1,343 people cast their vote and more than three quarters said yes. We are not going to ignore that signal. I understand that there are doubts because of the budgetary impact, but if a loan is taken out for the purchase and restoration over thirty years, then it is not even about one percent of the total annual municipal budget. So there is really no reason to sow financial panic, certainly not on the basis of figures that are not correct.”
Alderman Dirk Gerinckx (N-VA) was already allowed to visit the domain and was amazed. “The park offers countless possibilities as a meeting place for local events. A summer picnic with a performance, a winter drink with a heart-warming drink, a green stopover during a cycling or walking tour. I have already been sounded out by interested organizers and entrepreneurs. Maybe we’ll have our next New Year’s drink there?”
For environmental alderman Wouter Patho (N-VA), the purchase of the castle grounds is an investment in well-being and happiness. “25% of our territory is forest. It makes us the green municipality that we are proud of. But we can’t always get in.”
Patho pointed out that this purchase will bring pleasure to generations of Mallenaren. ““For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” That is the inscription that was placed above the gate of Yellowstone National Park, the famous national park in the United States, in 1872. The village centers are becoming busier and denser. We also support this, based on the vision of preserving the open spaces around the cores. That is why it is so important to make such a great park domain public for the people.”
Patho thought the time when those beautiful parks and domains were only accessible to the happy few, something for the age of chivalry. “We supported the purchase of the airport by the ANB and will now also ensure that it is partially accessible. We will also open up the forest on the Lange Dreef that we purchased together with Stichting Kempens Landschap. This is now the third.”
N-VA also pointed out that it was not only about securing the greenery, but also about the heritage value. “Preserving heritage is also a task of the municipality,” said Patho. “The castle encompasses hundreds of years of Westmal history. Most residents only know it from the photos, because the gate is always closed.”
Kris Mintjens of OostWest proved to be the most fervent advocate. He pointed to the rental income that the municipality can generate. “Even just renting out part of the castle can yield 7,500 euros per month. Let us also take a critical look at which properties the municipality can sell, properties that are of no use to citizens, such as the industrial land behind BMW, just to name a few.” Mintjens believes that there has been a standstill in Malle for 25 years. “I now feel that again in the attitude of DBM and CD&V. With an incredible partner like Kempens Landschap, who invests 2.5 million euros and gives the municipality full user rights, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Be ambitious as a municipality! Show some entrepreneurial spirit!”
Wim Vervloet (Vlaams Belang) says that he has also missed that ambition and courage in the past 25 years. “We cannot ignore that vote. From a tourist perspective, this is an opportunity for the municipality.”
Tom Laurijssen (independent) voted against. “The fact that two majority parties with a lot of administrative experience, DBM and CD&V, are worried makes me skeptical. I want to nuance those 25 years of stagnation. Association life in Malle has always been strongly supported over the past 25 years.” Laurijssen also hopes that there will be no problems with loiterers or litter, as in Domein de Renesse. “There is even graffiti on the ice house.”
Alex Van Loon of Progressief Malle referred to the great heritage value and natural value of the Westmalle castle grounds. His group supported the purchase. “The youth rooms, the sports park, the culture hall and library: that is where our priorities for the village center renewal lie. But they won’t cost 70 million. Perhaps that is precisely the problem: that the village center renewal project in Westmalle is now being made so big by involving all kinds of extras, which means that it can no longer be financed. Politics is making choices.”
There was remarkably more audience in the council chamber than at an average city council with less interesting agenda items. After the approval of the purchase, there was applause.
And so it will happen that the municipality of Malle will add not one castle domain, that of the Renesse, but also that of Westmalle, to the municipal patrimony.
The castle of Westmalle is not your average castle or a glorified pleasure garden from the nineteenth century, but a truly historic castle with a beautiful chapel. In 1449 the estate was sold by Philip the Good as duke of Brabant to Henri van der Moelen, councilor of Antwerp. It has no equal in the immediate region, or perhaps only the castle of ‘s-Gravenwezel and a little further that of Vorselaar. But the inhabitants are still not allowed to go beyond the gate and the lane because they are in private hands.
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