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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, January 2, 2012, 6:30 am

BEST forms task forces to tackle employment issues in 2012

Chamber’s BEST, county programs set focus on jobs

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    SONOMA COUNTY – Swiftly enacting a five-pronged strategic plan and partnering with existing economic development efforts will be some of the hallmarks of Sonoma County’s Building Economic Success Together or BEST group in 2012, said the organization’s newly appointed Executive Director Carolyn Stark.

    Five “task forces” will focus on the individual elements of BEST’s strategic plan this year, with overarching goals that include creating 4,100 jobs and enhancing the business environment in Sonoma County over a five-year period.

    “I want the BEST program to be a catalyst for economic development,” Ms. Stark said.

    Each task force will be headed by a member of BEST’s 13-member board of directors.

    Kevin Smith of Agilent Technologies will chair the group focused on business recruitment; Bobbi Beehler of Redwood Credit Union will chair the effort to foster business innovation; Anthy O’Brien of TopSpeedData will chair efforts to create a supportive business environment, and Karen Fies of the county Workforce Investment Board will chair the group focused on creating “a world-class work force” in Sonoma County.

    Ms. Stark said that the group was considering a co-chair arrangement for the final task force, with her joining BEST Vice-Chair Kevin Smith heading a group focused on business retention.

    “That’s because it’s such an important effort,” she said.

    Work remains in developing specific strategies among the various task forces, but Ms. Stark said that quick execution was a high priority.

    “Economic development can – and should – be long term, but we have a need now,” Ms. Stark said.

    The Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce launched BEST in March of 2011, taking aim at an unemployment rate in Sonoma County that has hovered around 10 percent during the recession. A national search resulted in the appointment of Ms. Stark, a veteran of economic development efforts in California as well as Texas.

    Since she recently began serving as executive director, Ms. Stark said that she has received many questions concerning how BEST, under the umbrella of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, will coexist with existing efforts like the county’s Economic Development Board.

    Those collaborations will be crucial going forward, she said.

    “The balance between other economic development efforts is going to be collaborative,” she said, “I want the BEST program to be a catalyst.”

    The Sonoma County Economic Development Board, a longstanding group operating under  county government, is coordinating an early-January meeting in collaboration with BEST to bring together a number of the county’s economic development efforts, said Executive Director Ben Stone.

    Mr. Stone noted that, in addition to the advancing efforts of BEST, the county had seen other changes to its economic development landscape. Linda Babonis recently became Rohnert Park’s economic development manager, and Ingrid Alverde assumed the same title in Petaluma.

    “The main idea is: how do we work together to collaborate on various things?” he said.

    Among the groups attending the January meeting will be the Innovation Hub and the Sonoma Mountain Business Cluster, the Sonoma State University School of Business and Economics, Santa Rosa Junior College and the Workforce Investment Board, Mr. Stone said.

    Ms. Stark said that her appointment meant that BEST was on track in its funding and ready to transition to the execution of its strategic plan.

    The group has raised approximately $3 million of the $3.25 million budgeted for its efforts over five years, Ms. Stark said. $2.5 million of that amount is in cash, with the remaining $500,000 representing in-kind contributions like marketing and video production.

    Contributions are ongoing, including a recent $25,000 grant from Bank of America and $22,500 over five years from the Santa Rosa law firm Perry, Johnson, Anderson, Miller & Moskowitz, LLP.

    To date, some of the largest contributions have come from the County of Sonoma, Moss Adams, PG&E, Kaiser Permanente, Redwood Credit Union, Henry Trione, and Luther Burbank Savings.

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