Dutch Consul General Ard Van der Vorst talks with Miller & Martin PLLC attorney Tom Harrold after the Global Atlanta Consular Conversation at the firm's offices.

It’s no accident that Ard Van der Vorst picked mid-November for an interview focused on the Netherlands’ relationship with the Southeast U.S. 

The Dutch consul general in Atlanta was keen to build on the momentum around Dutch-American Heritage Day, which each year marks the ties linking the nations across the centuries. 

The Nov. 16 date derives from 1776, when a cannon salute from the Dutch island St. Eustatius to a U.S.-flagged vessel served as the first foreign recognition of the fledgling republic. 

But more than a century before that, there was the Halve Maen, the ship explorer Henry Hudson sailed into the river that would eventually bear his name, laying the groundwork for the colony of New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan. 

The fact that the city is now known as New York says something about how the rush for North America played out, but that’s all the more reason to bring out the Dutch bits of America’s origin story, Mr. Van der Vorst hinted during a Global Atlanta Consular Conversation at Miller & Martin PLLC Nov. 13.

“We know these (stories), but we have to say them more than our British friends,” he joked.

But as little as Dutch ties are appreciated overall, they’re especially underdeveloped in the South, despite the fact that an estimated 86,000 people in Georgia alone boast some kind of Dutch ancestry.

What has been growing in this region of late — and what attracted the consulate itself — is the ongoing expansion of Dutch enterprises. 

Finding Synergistic Solutions 

Mr. Van der Vorst is the first diplomat to lead the newest Dutch mission in the U.S., which opened officially in January with a mandate toward increasing economic engagement. 

The timing was key: Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who had visited Georgia on a fintech, logistics and cybersecurity trade mission in 2015, had met in July 2018 with President Donald Trump, famously disagreeing (smilingly, of course) with the U.S. leader publicly at a press conference on the issue of tariffs. 

That made some headlines, but the more amicable result was that the Netherlands pledged to explore ways it could boost its already outsized investment presence in the U.S. The Dutch government even eventually put forth a concrete goal: increasing the number of American jobs sustained by Dutch investment from 825,000 to 1 million. 

“That means concretely that all of our consulates and economic teams are tasked with creating opportunities for our companies to see where we then create those jobs every day, and that reflects the business connections that we have,” Mr. Van der Vorst said. 

The consulate’s arrival brought the existing Dutch government presence in Atlanta — the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency — together with a newly expanded team that is building targeted expertise in industry sectors like advanced manufacturing, logistics, innovation and technology. 

Mr. Van der Vorst and the team are now focused on making contact with Dutch innovators who blazed a trail in the South. 

“We focus on business, and there is no challenge that doesn’t have a Dutch solution. We don’t necessarily brand it as being Dutch. It’s more important that the relationship is there and that we create a win-win situation,” he said. 

Examples of Dutch ingenuity are plentiful across the five states Mr. Van der Vorst covers. During the week of the interview, he was set to visit the groundbreaking of a $55 million AkzoNobel wood coating plant in North Carolina. That sits not far from Lillington, a town of 3,500 people where Dutch-owned Boon Edam USA makes revolving doors, turnstiles and security solutions. Closer to Atlanta, Fokker Aerospace has a plant in Forest Park that will soon be expanded, along with one near the Airbus factory in Mobile, Ala. 

These and many other investments — including a massive Dutch presence in the transportation and services sectors — all happened without consular intervention. Dutch investment and trade already underpins more than 80,000 jobs in the consulate’s five-state coverage area. The key for Mr. Van der Vorst and his team is now to figure out how they can collaborate with these “reflections of Dutch entrepreneurship.”

One way is to open doors through the sharing of expertise. Mr. Van der Vorst hopes to deepen the consulate’s conversations with Georgia and other states on technical education, for instance, given the shortage of skilled workers in the manufacturing space, especially women. 

He added that Dutch innovation could help solve the South’s shortage of agricultural labor. The Netherlands is the No. 2 agricultural exporter in the world behind the Untied States, despite limited land area and a relatively small population. 

“If we are able to be 10 percent of the total agricultural production in the world with 17 million people, that says something about how you can be smarter with the use of technology,” he said. 

Without immigration reform on the horizon, it may be time for producers here to look more toward automation, he said. 

“Maybe you should not talk so much about having more people working in your fields. Maybe you should rethink models on changing the way you cultivate your crops,” he said, noting conversions on this front happening in places like Gainesville, Ga., a world leader in poultry production. 

Another example of Dutch leadership is on the issue of water. That’s playing out in the South by Dutch Dialogues in Charleston, S.C., a project brings together Dutch experts with local and national stakeholders in the water management arena to address the resiliency of the historic city in the face of potential future flooding and rising sea levels. 

The Dutch, a maritime people who have learned to live with water in their low-lying country over more than eight centuries, have vast expertise to offer. The country even has an international envoy for water management, as well as consultancies like design and engineering firm Arcadis, which has a presence in Atlanta.

“It’s not so much about this levee or that, it’s about the process, how to get there,” Mr. Van der Vorst said. “From an early period on, we’ve been used to having to bring everybody on board to be successful and sustain decisions, so that means also a lot of compromises. It is actually the process that makes a difference.” 

All this accords with the Dutch foreign ministry’s decision to tie its aid outreach with its trade promotion — the goal is to build up communities; when a need arises, Dutch companies are there with a solution.

Making Southern Hospitality Real for All

Ultimately, where Dutch investors land is their own decision, but one that is increasingly tied to factors beyond dollars and cents. 

And for Mr. Van der Vorst, a gay man who has come to Atlanta with his husband, making sure the region’s renowned Southern hospitality is inclusive of everyone has taken on a very personal dimension. 

The consul general took up his posting in January, the same month Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp was inaugurated. 

Mr. Kemp would soon sign into law Georgia’s “heartbeat bill” effectively banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. It would be blocked by a federal judge, but not before many in Hollywood would call for a boycott of the state’s $9.5 billion film industry

These culture-war debates and their potential economic effects are nothing new in conservative Southern legislatures, from the perennial “religious freedom” bills critics worry could legitimize discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, to the so-called “bathroom bill” in North Carolina decried by transgender activists. 

Mr. Van der Vorst said he has that he is in a position, perhaps unlike some other diplomats, to table these issues in discussions with state leaders, reminding them how they may play in the minds of foreign investors. 

“I always ask, ‘You would like to have our jobs, you are interested in our investments, so what does your hospitality mean to them?’ “ he said. “What does that mean for a family with three daughters and very strong opinions on access to health care and reproductive rights? What does that mean for a gay CEO, or for me, being together with my husband?”

That honest dialogue is vital, he said, as it also opens the door for a discussion about the economic virtues of diversity and inclusion that go beyond the “trending topics” of the day .

“It’s important to recognize that we all can be different and that we can respect each other being different, but we always become stronger if we work together and collaborate and respect each other,” he said. “I feel sometimes people struggle with the LGBTQ letters and so on. I think it’s important to recognize who are beyond these letters, those who are struggling to be part of the community.” 

With that in view, Mr. Van der Vorst joined the other European Union consuls general in Atlanta for their first joint Atlanta Pride march in October.

As for respecting religious freedom, Mr. Van der Vorst said the Dutch know the value of this ideal more than most, since it has long served as a differentiator for a country that for centuries hosted religious refugees driven out of other parts of Europe. 

“We lived and let live. That made us also successful because we knew much more about other countries from people who would come to Amsterdam in the 17th century,” he said. “We also learned that there was a limit to freedom of religion, where it starts discriminating against others, and I think that that’s one important message that I bring across.” 

To bring even more attention to the business and cultural ties linking the Southeast and the Netherlands, the consulate is partnering with the the Netherlands-American Chamber of Commerce Southeast on the Halve Maen Award. Learn more about the awards or how to nominate a company or individual here

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...