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NORTH BAY -- The good news is that the worst part of the recession generally is over for the local construction industry, according to conference panelist Rob Eyler, chair of the Sonoma State University Economics Department and director of the institution's Center for Regional Economic Analysis.

"Construction is our major manufacturing base, alongside classic manufacturing in the North Bay and our wine industry," Dr. Eyler said. "We need to support these workers and either provide resources for their further education and flexibility into other careers or change our politics to realize the demand for new businesses means a demand for the trades."

In the short term, any funds secured from federal or other sources should be invested into skills training for the trades, education in general and construction projects that will lead to long-term job stability, he said.

But the long-term fixes for the industry, Dr. Eyler said, likely will come from greater flexibility from local governments about real estate development, especially in rezoning and repurposing properties for technology companies. With somewhere to go, those businesses and others could be enticed to relocate to the area.

Dr. Eyler will be one of the panelists at the Business Journal's annual Construction Conference on Wednesday, offering opportunities for the North Bay economy and its significant construction industry to prepare for the next business cycle.

Two solutions for higher vacancy rates for commercial real estate in a number of North Bay cities are better marketing of business in the region and more certainty about how much expanding in and relocating to the North Bay will cost in time and money, according to North Bay Leadership Council President and Chief Executive Officer Cynthia Murray. The group focuses on public policy that affects business activity.

"We're in an area where there is a lot more public involvement and a lot more agencies involved in a project," she said.

However, development of best practices for minimizing environmental impact from projects together with fiscal strain in many local governments provide an opportunity for streamlining the way local, state and federal agencies review projects, according to Ms. Murray. This has led to the Innovation Council's development of a "toolbox" for local government that would help standardize project requirements within an area.

Limited resources and common challenges also are leading to coordinated economic-development efforts in the North Bay, she said.

Leading the effort to develop consistent and coordinated marketing of business in the region is William Silver, dean of the School of Business and Economics at Sonoma State University.

"We've been a community where economic development has not gone on collaboratively," he said.

The North Bay has a number of existing economic-development, employee education, business-attraction and job-retention efforts, and some may work better in cooperation than in competition as well as areas where certain industries may be better suited than others, according to Dr. Silver.

For example, Sonoma Mountain Business Cluster in Rohnert Park has available space to incubate startups, and the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce's workplace-based English program has capacity to be offered through other chambers in the area.

"If we have a program already that works, we do not need to build a new one," he said.

Following up on meetings and local conferences in recently months, Dr. Silver and Dr. Eyler intend to hold meetings this summer with business and civic leaders in Marin and Sonoma counties about a regional group.

Also on the panel will be Louise Mason, senior vice president of construction and real estate for Exchange Bank, who will discuss the current barriers to lending as well as what banks are looking for in terms of underwriting criteria and appraisals.

Enforcing standards while encouraging business activity is a top-down philosophy in Fairfield and Sunnyvale, exemplified by more than 500,000 square feet of commercial projects coming out of the ground in the former and 90 percent of building permits being available over the counter in the latter.

Outside sources for business relocation and retention incentives are more important than ever as the state government secures millions in local redevelopment dollars to fill its budget shortfall, according to conference panelist Curt Johnston, Fairfield economic development division manager.

"Communities cannot afford to provide incentives anymore," he said.

The city sent Sacramento $12.1 million from its redevelopment fund earlier this month in conjunction with a court ruling against a statewide effort to block that transfer.

"It really hurt us in small-business lending," Mr. Johnston said. The city has a $4.5 million portfolio of loans to local businesses in amounts ranging from $50,000 to $250,000.

However, the city in the late 1970s and 1980s had undertaken extensive work in its redevelopment areas and now has nine business parks with approvals and many improvements in place for construction projects to begin quickly. Those improvements include a sewer system overdesigned to handle several giant beverage producers.

The city has averaged about 400,000 square feet in commercial construction projects annually for a number of years, including about a half-million square feet currently under construction. Whether that will continue this year is uncertain, yet 100,000 square feet of projects are in progress so far, Mr. Johnston said.

Yet having the land available helped attract Kiewit Pacific Corp. Early this month the company moved 110 employees from the East Bay into a new 32,000-square-foot regional office in Green Valley Corporate Park, part of 260 acres the city had purchased, entitled and then passed to H.J. Shein in a development agreement.

Also just approved on city-owned land was the sale of 11 acres for a Lowe's Home Improvement store.

An alternative to redevelopment funds is the Recovery Zone Facility Bond via the federal economic stimulus programs. The city obtained approval to pool such money allocated to other communities to get the first such bond in the state for a private project, landing $22 million to build a 295,000-square-foot manufacturing facility for Frank-Lin Distillery Products.

The company will relocate from San Jose and employ 160 in producing about 2,000 products, including brands such as Skyy vodka made under contract. Frank-Lin needed rail access to bring in bulk bourbon and other source liquids, so the city obtained regulatory permits and permission to cross a street. The city also deferred street improvements to save Frank-Lin money initially.

"Fairfield looks for ways to say 'yes,'" said City Manager Sean Quinn. "The entire focus of the city staff was on solutions to keep projects moving forward."

Fairfield has an economic development staff of six who also manage city real estate.

When he became Sunnyvale's community development director three years ago, Hanson Hom initially was uneasy about the reputation the building department's One-Stop Permit Center had garnered over two decades for rapid response to applicants.

"When I came to the city I was surprised how much was done over the counter, and initially I had concern on how to maintain quality control," he said.

The department goal is to quickly respond to phone calls, help applicants submit acceptable plans, issue nine of 10 permits the same day and the rest within three weeks, offer comments on applications within days, check plans the second time within 14 days of resubmission and inspect projects the next one to two business days, if needed.

That 90 percent over-the-counter permitting goal includes not only water heaters and new roofs, which many building departments handle quickly these days, but also smaller commercial buildings and single-family homes. The rest mainly are major subdivisions, significant structures and projects involving hazardous materials.

The difference is measurement of application demand so staffing can be adjusted accordingly, including contract help, and training staff about what can be approved on the spot, according to Mr. Hom.

"For many cities, it requires a major mind shift," he said. The Sunnyvale approach is to put the focus on the planning process to deal with the city's growing concerns about density and traffic so that construction permitting can proceed quickly based on clearly defined planning policy.

It also includes educating applicants more precisely about what is expected via publications, pre-application meetings and even helping applicants fix basic calculations on the spot. The goal, helped by set appointments, is to get basic permits issued within a half hour and more involved ones after a 45-minute private session with project architects and engineers.

"There is a limit, but to some degree it is more cost-effective for us to go the extra mile to explain what is needed and explain needed calculations than to give plans back and say it is not  compliant," Mr. Hom said.

Three members of the North Coast Builders Exchange board of directors and Chief Executive Officer Keith Woods toured the Sunnyvale building department recently.

"I didn't know anything like this was possible," said Todd Cowan, a Santa Rosa architect and contractor for three decades and current second vice president for the exchange.

The difference between Sunnyvale's building department and those of a number of local agencies is the former promotes and invites business through efficiency and customer service, according to Robert Cantu, president of Santa Rosa-based Western Builders and current first vice president of the exchange.

"In our local jurisdictions we have less reliability or predictability of how long it will take to process a permit," he said. "This makes our clients hesitant to initiate projects and prevents business owners from offering jobs."