ROHNERT PARK — Rohnert Park is becoming an increasingly powerful force behind Sonoma County’s overall economy, drawing thousands of new visitors to the region while preparing for a number of significant housing projects in the coming years, according to a panel at the annual Impact Sonoma conference last Wednesday.
While individual projects like the Donald & Maureen Green Music Center and the Graton Resort and Casino have recently drawn a great deal of public attention, panelists representing business, housing and city planning agreed that those efforts are part of a larger movement that has quietly picked up speed in the city of 41,000.
“We have a number of national franchises and local businesses that have discovered Rohnert Park,” said Marilyn Ponton, the city’s planning and building manager and a panelist at the event.
Held at the Sonoma Mountain Village event center, the North Bay Business Journal’s annual event focused both on the evolution of Rohnert Park and on findings from a first-ever Sonoma County Business Climate Survey.
The survey found only 6 percent of responders expected the economy to worsen in the next six months, with 42 percent expecting no changes and 53 percent expecting an improvement. Nearly half — 45 percent — said they expected to increase staff during that period, and 64.6 percent rated the Sonoma County Business Climate as “favorable.”
A combined 41.3 percent of responders said that “less than half” or “very little” of their sales were in Sonoma County, suggesting an inflow of revenue for the county from other areas.
Availability of regional talent was a key issue, with 30 percent of responders saying that they were unable to fill current openings. Serving on a panel analyzing those results, Ben Stone of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board highlighted efforts to satisfy that need for talent, particularly through public-private partnerships between employers and schools.
“If you think about it — public agencies do much of the training, and most of the employment is in the private sector,” he said.
Unlike a relative minority in Marin County, 77.7 percent of Sonoma County employees also live in the county, according to the survey. That pattern helps to support a number of co-benefits in the county, including a rigorous nonprofit and hospitality sector, said Tom Duryea, president and CEO of Summit State Bank and another panel participant.
“People want to be here,” Mr. Duryea said.
Yet as the county faces a shortage of housing to serve that population, the approximately 4,000 entitled homes planned for Rohnert Park could help to fill that need.
With 1,645 planned homes, the 300-acre University District project is among those efforts that were stalled during the recession. The project received its entitlement in 2006, following 13 years of talks with the city.
“We were entitled approximately 13 minutes before the economic downturn hit,” said Kevin Pohlson, vice president of the developer, Brookfield Homes.
An improving economy has helped breathe new life into that project, with plans for a new configuration that better interfaces with the neighboring Green Music Center.
“The idea is to have a pedestrian, bike and vehicular connection to the Green Music Center,” he said. “The key word is ‘connectivity.’”
The center itself has recently completed its first full year of operation, with around 120,000 guests attending its various performances, said Dan Condron, vice president for university affairs at Sonoma State University. Mr. Condron said that students have also been active users of the facility, and that a growing student population with a higher rate of residency is reshaping the university’s culture as a whole.
“There are activities seven days a week, 24/7. This is the context in which the Green Music Center fits,” he said.
The soon-to-open Graton Resort & Casino is also expected to draw thousands of new visitors to Rohnert Park, helping to fuel the region’s surrounding business and hotels while itself providing millions in revenue through an agreement with the city and thousands of new jobs, said Lori Nelson, spokeswoman for the Station Casinos, the developer.
“Outside of Station Casino’s management team of 12 individuals, that workforce is all from around here.”
Brad Baker, CEO of Sonoma Mountain Village’s developer, Codding Enterprises, noted that the 35 companies that have come to occupy the site’s 600,000 square feet of commercial space have also helped to drive the region’s economic growth. Those tenants are currently sustaining the campus, but the improving economy and appetite by investors to fund residential construction could help fuel the ultimate vision of nearly 1,700 new homes constructed at the site.
“We view the housing aspect as a bonus here,” he said.
The Rohnert Park City Council’s decision to pursue construction of a $13 million sewer trunk line on the east side of the city is intended to boost those projects and others in the future, Ms. Ponton said.
“It’s not the most exciting part of development, but it’s the most necessary,” she said. “We haven’t produced housing in this area for many, many years.”
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