By Shandra Martinez, Grand Rapids Press, June 7, 2015
Before returning to the Netherlands,Dutch King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima shared some thoughts about their Michigan visit with the man who worked behind the scenes to make it happen. During their whirlwind trip to Grand Rapids, the king and queen visited Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Parks,DeVos Children’s Hospital and Van Andel Institute, facilities funded by the region’s Dutch-American billionaires.“I think they were impressed by the genuine interest in the Netherlands, and how our region flourishes and the sophistication of our region,”Paul Heule said about his conversation with the royal couple Tuesday evening. “I don’t think they expected that before they arrived.”
The Dutch-born Ada resident didn’t realize he would be preparing for a rare royal visit when he was appointed honorary consul for the Netherlands.
But Heule knew he wanted to deepen cultural and economic ties between his native Netherlands and Michigan, where he lives with his wife and five daughters. When he was sworn in as Dutch consul, he handed out orange extension cords to those in attendance to illustrate the way his office would be an extension between Dutch businesses and cultural organizations and their counterparts in West Michigan. The Dutch first settled West Michigan in the mid- 1800s, and the region’s roots are evident in the names of towns and the families, many of whom own successful businesses. Heule built on those long ties with theWest Michigan Global Initiative, a group he co-founded to promote economic and cultural ties between the two regions.
The group organized the first formal trade mission to the Netherlands in 2013, led by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, and hosted two Netherlands delegations of business leaders and dignitaries, including Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in 2011. “Until you come here, I think it is hard to understand how dynamic this small town in the Midwest really is,” Heule said. He compared West Michigan Global Initiative’s work to the planting of many seeds that helped Grand Rapids be included in the itinerary for Willem-Alexander’s first official visit to the United States since ascending the throne in 2013. “I can tell you that folks in Washington and Chicago felt Grand Rapids was an important place to stop,” Heule said. In his largely ceremonial role as king, Willem- Alexander has focused his attention on economic development.
His three day visit to the U.S. was accompanied by a trade mission ofmore than 50 companies, most in the agriculture and health care sectors. Last month in The Hague, the king said he had wanted to see Michigan for several years, and his mother, Beatrix, had spoken fondly of her 1982 visit during her reign as queen. He said his family cherishes its relationships with Dutch-Americans who remain connected to their European roots. The arts also have benefited from the Dutch delegations, resulting in an exhibit of well-known Dutch artists coming to Grand Valley State University this fall, and interest in bringing a version of Grand Rapids’ acclaimed ArtPrize to the Netherlands. These exchanges begin with introductions. “These are tiny steps we are taking, but all together, there are some pretty measurable results in a real exchange of ideas,” Heule said.
The king’s visit highlighted the country’s interest in life sciences, agriculture and health research. Healthy aging is a major topic of discussion in the life science/health area, while healthy eating and a local, farm-to-table approach are the focus in agriculture. The Right Place, Lakeshore Advantage and the Michigan Economic Development Corp. collaborated on one-on-one matching between companies during the Dutch delegation’s brief visit in West Michigan. TheWest Michigan Global Initiative set up severalmatches and tours this year including a stop at Meijer’s manufacturing center in the Lansing area; life science tours with a special focus on healthy aging at Mary Free Bed, Steelcase’s health furniture division and Van Andel Institute. West Michigan Global Initiative isn’t an old boys’ network of successful Dutch Americans, Heule said. Membership includes John Irwin, local president of Huntington Bank, Haworth CEO Franco Bianchi and Bing Goei, CEO of Eastern Floral and director of Michigan’s Office of New Americans. Heule said he would like to build on the success of the royal visit and the Dutch trade mission by organizing another group of Michigan business leaders and dignitaries to visit the Netherlands.
In the meantime, he would like to encourage the connections that were made this past week. “I think it is a matter of building on the relationship of all of those people who were here in the last couple of days,” he said. Heule balances his consul duties with running the international real estate investment firm Eenhoorn LLC. The consul post is unpaid but an official appointment of the Dutch government. A Dutch flag and consulate sign are posted at Eenhoorn headquarters, 231W. Fulton St. Heule was seen as someone who embodies the “new Dutch” in Michigan.
He immigrated to the United States with his parents to live nearer his older siblings, who were attending Calvin College. He also graduated from Calvin, earning a degree in math and computer science, and he started his career as a computer programmer. Along with his father, Carl, a retired Dutch banker, Heule began a real-estate investment and management venture that bears hismother’s maiden name, Eenhoorn, which means “unicorn” in Dutch. Plaza Towers and other apartment complexes in Grand Rapids are among Eenhoorn’s current holdings. The firm also has a presence in Europe, where Heule travels every couple of months.