Economist: North Bay set for ‘broad growth’ through 2014
ROHNERT PARK — Opening the 2013 Economic Outlook Conference at Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center on Wednesday, Sandy Weill, former chairman and top executive of Citigroup and a major donor to the project, pointed to the upper seats of the concert hall that his contributions had helped to complete.
He asked the audience — a yearly gathering of North Bay business leaders — to look to the back of the hall and the balconies, where hundreds of students were in attendance as part of a new multidisciplinary course that university President Ruben Armiñana said may be the first of its kind in the United States.
“That is the future,” Mr. Weill said to the audience before turning his gaze to the students. “God bless you, and don’t screw it up!”
Titled “Game-Changers: Innovations and Leaders Transforming the North Bay Economy,” the 2013 conference featured the annual economic outlook of regional economist Dr. Robert Eyler and described an economy that is growing, at least in Sonoma County, at a nearly unequaled rate in the United States.
Yet that growth was not without risk. Mr. Weill described the threat of economic fallout from a changed reality of depleted funding for schools and other public institutions.
“We have to think that there is an answer,” said Mr. Weill, speaking in the hall named after him and his wife, Joan. “There is a need for public-private partnerships. Business is smart. If they support their communities, they’ll be able to hire better people.”
Mr. Weill also advocated for institutions like Sonoma State to pursue a larger contingent of foreign students, both for the economic windfall generated by a higher tuition rate and to foster a greater diversity of cultures and views.
The Green Music Center, he said, could help generate international interest, and was one artifact of a rising Sonoma County economy that is “generations away from a bubble.”
“There is so much room to expand here,” he said, particularly in hospitality and related industries.
‘Broad growth’ in 2014
In his annual economic forecast, Dr. Eyler, director of the university’s Center for Regional Economic Analysis, said that the six North Bay counties of Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Solano, Mendocino and Lake could expect “broad growth” across various sectors through 2014.
However, continuing legislative debate about taxation and regulation has caused uncertainty to persist in the business community, tempering long-term plans and making predictions difficult beyond 2015.
Mr. Eyler called for a collaborative focus on marketing and business development in the North Bay, and for a efforts to focus on resolving the frequent obstacles many companies face.
“It’s way easier to hit 100 singles than have one home run in economic development,” he said.
The first panel at the conference was composed of Tony Magee, founder of Lagunitas Brewing Company; Tracy Geldert, chief executive officer of of Francis Ford Coppola Presents; John Crean, president and CEO of Sonoma Creamery; and Carolina Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California.
The Sonoma County brand has an allure with consumers and visitors, an advantage that can be leveraged for strong and expanding companies in the North Bay, the panelists said.
“The most exciting part of the business for us is to keep it exactly how it always was — but grow it 10 times more,” Mr. Magee said.
On the second panel, discussing the “triple bottom line” of profit, people and planet, were Robert Hunter, a registered investment adviser and advocate for the new capital-raising avenue of “crowdfunding”; Mark Nelson, principal of the Mark Nelson Group and entrepreneur-in-residence at Sonoma State; and Jeff Stump, easement program director for the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and leader in the greenhouse-gas-sequestration effort known as the Marin Carbon Project.
The conference was co-sponsored by the North Bay Business Journal. Mr. Weill is part of a group of investors that currently owns the Business Journal, Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Petaluma Argus-Courier and Sonoma Index-Tribune.
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