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It was a year dominated by a struggling economy that touched virtually everyone.

But it was also a year marked by the roll out of an innovative energy program, some significant venture capital investments in telecom and biotech and at least the beginning steps toward regional commuter rail and transit-oriented development.

Here are 10 stories from Business Journal headlines in 2009.

1. The economy and jobs

NORTH BAY – Whether it ends up being remembered as the Great Recession or just passes into history books as a particularly bad downturn, the economy and unemployment were clearly the top story of 2010.

As the year came to a close, the jobless rate in Sonoma and Napa counties stood at above the historic level of 10 percent. Marin had the lowest rate in the state. But at 8.1 percent, it was three percentage points above a year earlier with no major relief in sight.

The budgets of cities, counties, education at all levels are just now feeling the full impact of California's $20-billion-plus budget deficit and disastrous 12.2 percent unemployment, the highest in decades.

"In some areas of California, including depressed urban neighborhoods in Los Angeles," wrote the Los Angeles Times recently, "1 in 5 people in the labor force is out of work. The fallout from prolonged unemployment is pounding those regions as businesses close, homes tumble into foreclosure and frustration mounts."

"Elsewhere in the state," the Times said, "some parts of Kings, Fresno and Imperial counties are experiencing unemployment rates that top 30 percent."

The UCLA Anderson Forecast said early last month it expects double-digit unemployment to persist into 2012.

If there is good news it is that the worst is over for California's enormous and diverse economy, according to UCLA.

That would be welcome, indeed.

--Business Journal Staff

2. All eyes on banking

NORTH BAY – In 2009, banking regulators were telling banks to be careful making loans if they made them at all, while the White House was encouraging them to lend, setting up a tension that persists today.

More than 170 banks nationwide were shut down in 2009 by regulators. During the years 2003 to mid 2008, only 10 banks were shut down. Two North Bay banks were under federal orders to improve their balance sheets.

The Small Business Administration rolled out a program funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act intended to spur lending to small businesses. The SBA increased its guarantee to 90 percent from 75 percent and waived the fees associated with SBA loans.

--Jenna Loceff

3. Innovative energy program spurs projects

SONOMA COUNTY – The passage of Assembly Bill 811 allowed cities and counties in California to create financing districts where property owners could take loans for energy improvements and pay them over time through their property tax bills.

The Sonoma County Energy Independence Program was the first county-wide program in the state to implement this kind of project.

Since the Board of Supervisors approved the project, $100 million in bonds has been allocated to making the loans. The loans are for projects such as insulation, windows, solar, HVAC, cool roofs and energy audits.

So far more than $18 million has been contracted out for projects and counties across the North Bay and the nation are looking into creating similar programs.

The movement of solar companies to the area has been viewed as an indication that this program will create jobs.

--Jenna Loceff

4. Napa's downtown being transformed

NAPA – Part of more than $600 million in public and private projects built in downtown Napa in the past several years were three major mixed-use and hotel projects totaling about $100 million.

The $12 million Main Street West building was completed at the beginning of the year at 1251 Main St. The three-story, 40,000-square-foot, building by The Wiseman Co.

Kansas-based Lodgeworks completed the $41 million Avia hotel and retail development in the 1400 block of First Street in mid-summer. The 141-room, five-story hotel has 12,000 square feet of street-level shop space.

Channel Properties completed The Riverfront at 588-790 Main St. The $72 million project has 40,000 square feet of retail space, 30,000 square feet of offices, 50 residential condominiums and underground parking for 229 vehicles. Signed tenants include star chefs “Iron Chef” Masaharu Morimoto and Tyler Florence as well as a seafood restaurant by Lark Creek Restaurant Group.

On top of that was the return of a major department store with the reopening of the shuttered Mervyn's store as Kohl's.

The downtown development and redevelopment has been aided by the ongoing flood-control project.

At the end of 2009 a sale of the 17-acre property for American Center for Food, Wine and Arts, or Copia, was pending. Copia closed in 2008 after amassing $78 million in debt. Ideas for the property include dividing it for individual redevelopment projects or converting it to a conference or hospitality center.

--Jeff Quackenbush

5. High-end wines feel pinch; but brands still sell

NORTH COAST – North Coast wineries and growers faced the same "inventory-induced recession" that plagued producers of manufactured goods, as distributors and retailers in late 2008 started radically reducing stocks as consumer sales dropped or shifted to lower-priced products, former head of graduate wine studies at UC Davis Robert Smiley told the 2009 Wine Industry Financial Symposium.

Sales of fine wines, or those selling for more than $20 a bottle, in 2009 were expected to dip 2 percent to 8 percent from sales in 2008, following a slowdown in sales growth for the segment, according to a report by Rob McMillan, founder of Silicon Valley Bank's Premium Wine Division. Overall, 2009 U.S. wine sales, propelled by wines under $10 a bottle, were expected to have a few percentage points of positive growth.

Year-over-year sales growth slowed from 22.3 percent at the end of 2007 to 11.6 percent in the third quarter of 2008 just before the financial-market crash to 2 percent at the end of 2008. Fine-wine sales in the second quarter of this year were 11.2 percent below those of a year prior.

"For many boomers, a $50 bottle of wine is now permanently outside of their budgets and the fine wine industry will need to give more attention in marketing to the under 40 consumer," Mr. McMillan wrote. He was referring to the "aspiring affluent" who make up about 60 percent of fine wine consumers.

But even as vintners adjusted to the downturn, significant deals were being made.

In September, Sonoma-based The Vincraft Group of experienced industry executives and investors acquired pinot star Kosta Browne.

Other deals were said to be in the offing.

--Jeff Quackenbush

6. New hospitals, health centers for North Bay

NORTH BAY – While a fierce debate over health care reform raged in Washington, D.C., hundreds of millions of dollars were being directed toward new hospitals and health centers to meet the changing needs of the North Bay and meet seismic requirements.

Sutter Health's proposed new 70-bed hospital in Santa Rosa continued to move toward hoped-for construction in 2010. Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa was completing its hospital tower addition.  In November, the $16.6 million Martin-O’Neil Cancer Center at St. Helena Hospital opened.

Across the North Bay, health centers that serve the swelling ranks of the uninsured and underinsured were planning expansions totaling in the tens of millions of dollars.

Finally, a plan to bring acute mental health services back to Sonoma County absent for nearly two years was announced with the purchase of a west Santa Rosa medical facility.

--Business Journal staff

7. SMART, Railroad Square move forward

SANTA ROSA – The New Railroad Square Project, a multiuse, multiphase development slated to be at the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit main stop in Railroad Square received $15 million in state and federal funds.

The developer of the project, the John Stewart Company, plans to do some site cleanup first then begin work of the affordable housing part of the project.

SMART has made progress as well. It has sent out requests for qualifications for six different projects, including real estate services, vehicle and systems design, civil/track/pathway design, major bridges design services, station site selection and design and maintenance facility.

--Jenna Loceff

8. Some VC flows again

PETALUMA – In a throwback to the glory days of Telecom Valley when venture capital poured in Sonoma's telecom equipment makers, Calix raised $100 million in debt and equity funding in June.

It was the largest amount of capital raised by a North Bay company in 10 years.

In November, the maker of broadband access equipment filed plans for an initial public offering to raise up to $100 million more.

The company is growing in anticipation of a flood of stimulus money – part of $7.2 designated for telecommunications – among its many rural and independent carrier customers.

"We see an inflection point in the market that presents unique prospects for the company, and are exited to help Calix capture this growth opportunity," said one of the company's new investors.

Meanwhile, solar-technology innovator Enphase Energy raised $22.5 million and medical device-maker TriVascular received another $30 million in 2009.

--Loralee Stevens

9. 'Community benefits agreements' stir debate

ROHNERT PARK – The first-ever signing of a Community Benefits Agreement between the developer of the 200-acre Sonoma Mountain Village and the Accountable Development Coalition spurred debate across the construction and contractor communities, business, unions and environmentalists.

The agreements, which have come into use in the last 10 years, include labor, environmental and affordable housing requirements for the development, among other terms.

People on both sides feel the agreements may become a template for development, though the Accountable Development Coalition, made up of union, environmental and other groups, has stated it is only interested in working with developers of large projects.

The Accountable Development Coalition is also negotiating with the developer of the Railroad Square.

--Jenna Loceff

10. Inertia acquires wine shipper New Vine

NAPA – The early June shutdown of Napa-based wine direct-shipping order fulfillment house New Vine sent the company's some 200 vintner customers scrambling to find alternative services.

After ramping up its infrastructure over several months to land a deal with Amazon.com's planned Internet wine store, New Vine encountered problems with its existing financiers. Amazon in October confirmed it dropped plans for an Internet wine store.

Wine direct-to-consumer and direct-to-trade conduit Inertia Beverage Group of Napa worked out a deal with Silicon Valley Bank to take over as senior debt holder. Inertia Beverage injected about $1 million to restore shipments by mid-June.

Inertia Beverage acquired New Vine's main assets, including its 136,000-square-foot American Canyon fulfillment center, in a foreclosure sale for $4.5 million in late July.

In mid-December, Inertia Beverage received commitments for $14 million in capital from existing and new investors, named a new chairman of the board and expanded its customer base by 40 to 350 in the preceding three months.

--Jeff Quackenbush