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MARIN COUNTY -- The North Bay Business Journal's 2010 Impact Marin conference from 8 to 10:30 a.m. Thursday, March 11 at the Embassy Suites is packed with information designed to help businesses navigate the economy and come to a decision on what is arguably the most important issue facing the area, Marin Clean Energy.

The event includes a community panel consisting of:

Russ Colombo, president and CEO of Bank of Marin, who will address banking and finance in the current economy.

Steve Jannicelli, senior manager, business consulting of Moss Adams, who will address how businesses can succeed in this environment.

Matthew Hymel, Marin County administrator, who will discuss the county and statewide fiscal challenges.

Following the panel, attendees will have the opportunity to hear from both sides of the Marin Clean Energy issue from Dawn Weisz, interim director of the Marin Energy Authority, and former Assemblyman Joe Nation, representing the Common Sense Coalition, an organization formed in opposition to the MEA’s plan.

To attend, contact Linda Perkins at 707-521-5264 or events@busjrnl.com. Tickets are $39 per person or $390 for a table of 10 and include continental breakfast.

Here's what the community panelists will address:

Mr. Colombo: “I think people have adjusted,” he said about the current economy.

He said businesses looking for loans need to have things thought out.

In addition to knowing the primary and secondary source of repayment and cash flow and collateral properly put together, he said bankers want to know that the borrower has plans in case of another downturn.

“Bankers are always skeptical,” he said. “It really helps to plan that way because everything doesn’t go as planned. It shows that you have thought through the down cycle.”

Those are the primary things, he said.

“Understanding the markets and understanding the challenges that exist are key.”

He said, additionally, that business owners should know their banker. That way, they will understand about expansion of the business and about the cash flow.

“Relationship banking is really important in this climate,” he said.

He understands how frustrated people are with lack of lending.

“There has been a lot of talk about banks not lending, but there is a contradiction,” he said.

It is easy for Washington to say, “Hey, lend,” but with regulators saying banks have to be more conservative, it puts them in a tough position, he said.

“I think it makes sense for regulators to tell banks to be more cautious and to properly secure their loans,” he said.

Bank of Marin has assets totaling more than $1 billion and is the second-largest bank in Marin.

Mr. Jannicelli: He said a very important topic to think about now is business risks and opportunities in the “new reality.”

He said a lot of folks a year ago were holding on and not changing how they were structured and now are just cost cutting.

“They knew the economy was not business as usual, but they were running their businesses as usual with the expectation that things would get better soon,” he said.

Knowing what has changed for the businesses customers will put the owners in the position to tailor their product to the needs and wants of the customer, he said.

“Whether you are a restaurant or an auto dealer, you need to know if you are selling what they want. What matters is the value of your products or services to your clients.”

One of the ways he said business owners can get information on their customers is through social media.

“I remember when I first saw my wife get on Facebook I thought it looked like a new version of Classmates.com. I thought it was nice to get in touch with old friends, to see how they were, but then what? As a business person and someone who is a very logical person, I wanted to know the business value of Facebook and Twitter.”

That value, he discovered, is that social networks are an avenue to hear from customers.

“Use it as a free-form focus group,” he said.

When people are polled in the traditional method, they will answer how they think they are supposed to answer, he said.

“But with this kind of media, people are less inhibited.”

He said people are always asking, “When are we going to be back to where we were?”

“Hopefully never,” he said. “Things were based on a bubble. We are now learning to operate in the new market, and it makes more sense.

“We just need to find equilibrium. What to do now is what matters.”

Mr. Hymel: “We can’t afford to provide the same level of service as we used to due to a budget gap,” said Mr. Hymel.

The county has made $28 million in reductions to its budget over the past two years, he said, and it anticipates another $20 million internal gap in the next fiscal year.

To date, the county has eliminated more than 100 vacant positions and has enacted a hiring freeze.

The county has also adopted a lower-cost retiree health plan for all new employees and has saved more than $1 million from foregoing or deferring cost-of-living adjustments.

The county anticipates reducing hours in parks, libraries and other facilities as well as in public safety services.

In addition to the internal gap, he said, there is the potential of a $15 million cut from the state.

“That is a $35 million deficit,” he said.

At risk for state cuts are child welfare, job training and child care for people on welfare, he said.

“Given the internal fiscal challenge, we need to adapt our spending. We need to work with community partners that share our mission in the future.”

He said one advantage Marin has in all this is that the county has one of the highest nonprofit per capita ratios in the state, and the county has been able to partner with many of those groups to fill in where some of the county gaps lie.

“Marin Community Foundation is a unique partner,” Mr. Hymel said. “We have been working on a safety net partnership for the last year.”

When compared to comparable counties – Sonoma, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, San Mateo and San Luis Obispo – Marin has the least per capita spending rate.

“We hope this can provide a context from which to see how we are doing,” he said.

“And the good news is that the county has the highest bond rating in the state,” he said.