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Future work force, natural resources, inventiveness key

Sonoma County – The strategic economic plan for Sonoma County is ready to go into action. Developed by the Sonoma County Innovation Council during 2008, the plan was approved by county supervisors on Jan. 13.

The strategic plan involves identifying factors driving regional competitiveness as well as finding ways to fundamentally transform how the public and private sectors can ensure the future availability of qualified workers, address possible shortages of natural resources and implement measures to help assure a strong economic climate in years to come.

Part of this process could involve a proposed initiative that would channel funds to these three critical areas.

“Sonoma County’s economy faces serious challenges in the years ahead, and business as usual will not suffice,” said Randy DeCaminada, marketing director for PG&E’s North Coast operations and co-chair of the Innovation Council. “Growing pressures on Sonoma County mean we will have to change how we live and work, requiring collaborative action from business, government, education and the community in finding solutions to adapt to changing times.”

The council believes that a renewed commitment to economic development through a variety of sustainable business initiatives, private-public partnerships and educational attainment measures can stimulate innovation in all facets of the area’s economy. Among other advantages, this process could lead to the creation of more than 14,000 new jobs.

“Sonoma is the only California county that made plans to get ahead of the recession by seeking better ways to create jobs and raise living standards while also efficiently using natural, human and capital resources to increase productivity,” said Cynthia Murray, co-chair of the Innovation Council and president and CEO of the North Bay Leadership Council. “This plan is a framework for action for the work that lies ahead by establishing benchmarks, timelines, roles and responsibilities designed to achieve results.”

The process began more than 16 months ago when the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, PG&E, the Workforce Investment Board and the Sonoma County Water Agency, in cooperation with other groups, proposed the development of an economic strategic plan for Sonoma County.

In September 2007, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors created the Innovation Council to look ahead at the opportunities and challenges facing the regional economy through 2018. Along with Ms. Murray and Mr. DeCaminada, the Innovation Council includes 32 other members who represent a cross-section of the economy.

After a year of fact-finding and research, in cooperation with economic consultant Moody’s Economy.com and Collaborative Economics, the firm serving as the project facilitator for strategic planning, the final report was ready for review in January 2009.

The Innovation Council is funded by a $50,000 challenge grant from the Morgan Family Foundation with matching funds from seven private firms. Strategic plan recommendations address three key areas:

work force development.

natural resources.

developing an innovative economic climate.

Separate task forces, under the oversight of the ongoing Innovation Council, will soon be organized to address each of these areas.

Without improvements in education levels, pending retirements of baby boomers coupled with a fast-growing Latino population and higher costs in Sonoma County’s communities will create skilled-labor shortages, the council found.

“One objective is to build a world-class work force based on educational achievement, career training and exploration as well as lifelong learning,” Mr. DeCaminada said.

“Sonoma County has an acute problem – only 62 percent of Hispanic high school students graduate. In a recent survey, 66 percent of major Sonoma County businesses had difficulty finding qualified job applicants. The current education system does not fully equip students with necessary real-world job skills,” he said.

“At the same time,” he added, “the availability of career technical education courses offered in public schools is declining. Only 31 percent of California high school students possess some form of career training, and only 25 percent are expected to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.”

This task force will bring together educators, businesses and Latino leaders to determine what needs to be done to provide workplace-skills training and close the education gap by increasing the percentage of Hispanic students graduating from high school. The group will also explore mentoring and tutoring programs, internships and ways to offer more career technical education to more students (MESA, STEM, Math/Science Academy, Algebra Academy, Work-Ready Certificates, Online Career Planning, etc.).

On the natural resources front in the decades ahead, “Sonoma County may not have enough energy, water, land and a transportation infrastructure to maintain a sustainable economy, adversely impacting local industries and the job base,” Ms. Murray said.

“The council believes that business must take the lead in finding more efficient ways to utilize resources. While numerous incentive programs exist for energy and water efficiency, some businesses are either unaware of them or have elected not to participate.

“Many exemplary programs are already in place and ‘how-to’ tools are available for significant resource conservation. Coupled with these factors is the need to address climate change, including AB 32 and the Sonoma County Climate Protection Action Campaign goals that provide great opportunities and challenges to businesses.”

To encourage innovation, specific partnerships and projects will be showcased. The Innovation Showcase, held on Jan. 21 at the Doubletree Hotel in Rohnert Park, attracted 500 attendees and raised awareness of current and future innovative practices. The council also recommends creating a message board and a Sustainable Business Web site to promote innovation throughout Sonoma County.

“We want to encourage the county to become a leader in clean/green technologies by supporting the expansion of ‘green-collar’ jobs,” Mr. DeCaminada said.

On the economy, global competition is accelerating, requiring businesses to continuously innovate to keep pace. The third task force will actively support the development of existing and emerging industries, including small, innovative companies that have the potential to expand, along with the opportunity to create new jobs, increase economic output and public revenues. “The council believes that a vital economic climate involves both containing costs and retaining the value of doing business in Sonoma County.,” Ms. Murray said.

“One way to achieve this is by eliminating or dramatically reducing inefficient regulatory activities, such as delays in permitting, etc., which add costs in terms of time and money to businesses.”

To address these concerns, the council will foster the growth and development of second-stage companies, those beyond the startup years, and study a model policy for economic innovation.

This task force will focus economic development efforts on innovation in Sonoma County’s key economic clusters – the creative professional category, wealth management, construction and “green,” wholesale trade, health and wellness and tourism, among others – and study permitting processes to explore ways to enhance regulatory efficiency.

Based on estimates provided by Moody’s Economy.com, impacts for the plan by 2020 could result in almost 14,000 additional jobs across the county’s economy, addressing the expected jobs shortfall for the growing labor force over the next 10 years. More than $1.4 billion in additional economic output could be expected, the equivalent of $2,613 more per resident. Over $85 million in additional public revenues for community services, infrastructure and similar purposes could also be realized.

“The strategic economic plan describes an attainable, innovative future over the next decade. The triple bottom line benefit of this plan can result in economic prosperity, environmental quality and social opportunity, but it requires an unprecedented level of collaboration across all sectors,” Ms. Murray added. “County government has already adopted 11 initiatives to begin strategic plan implementation.”