It was part pep rally and part an economic outlook conference with charts and graphs.

Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire urged the crowd of 375 last Wednesday at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel in Santa Rosa to “set aside regional and historical differences” to create “the most aggressive economic development and jobs program in our history.”

With 28 straight months of 9 percent-plus unemployment, it’s high time to “get Sonoma County back to work,” he said.

The good news, according to Moody’s Analytics economist Steve Cochrane, is that some modest job growth is starting to take root. Sonoma County, the largest economy in the North Bay, should add 3,000 jobs this year.

The bad news is that is not near enough to get the region back to employment levels before the Great Recession. Sonoma County lost 20,000 jobs in the downturn – significantly more on a percentage basis than the state or nation. If Sonoma County settles for 3,000 or 3,500 new jobs a year, it could be 2017 or longer just to get back to where we were.

So how can job creation be accelerated?

The North Bay and Sonoma County in particular have a unique window of opportunity.

In Sonoma County, home prices are the most affordable they have been in a decade or more. Commercial space is both plentiful and affordable as well. In Petaluma, hundreds of thousands of square feet of space has been absorbed in recent months as growing companies here and from Marin have snapped up properties.

All good, but it won’t last forever.

At some point – a year or two, let’s say – that existing space, or least that which is desirable, will be full. Then what?

That’s really the big question for the region and Sonoma County if it is serious about ensuring economic vitality through the inevitable cycles to come.

Where will new industrial and advanced-manufacturing space be located?

Where will workers and their families find housing?

And what will be the regulatory barriers? That's a question that came up again and again on Wednesday.

To its credit, the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, which organized Wednesday’s session has identified five key economic “clusters” where it believes the area has opportunities. They are:

n  Health and wellness.

n  Advanced manufacturing.

n  Sonoma “specialties,” which encompasses food and wine and the concept of “total destination” tourism marketing to “experience seekers.”

n  Professional and innovation support services.

n  And “sustainable prosperity,” which includes renewable power innovation and efforts around energy and resource efficiency.

These kinds of focused cluster strategies have shown some previous success. The Economic Development Board was a leader in reshaping fractured tourism promotion into today’s cohesive and effective efforts of the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau.

Private-public cooperation resulted in an engineering school and the Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University.

Those efforts are still paying dividends. But as Mr. Cochrane noted, the economic makeup of the region is different today than a decade ago and much different than 20 years ago.

The next 10 or 20 years – not just the next two or three – will require new thinking about reforming regulatory processes, fees, taxes, business climate, workforce development, higher education and – perhaps most important – bringing business leaders and their expertise to the table, front and center.

Perhaps then, as Supervisor McGuire said, we can we build the “most thriving regional economy in the West.”


Brad Bollinger is Business Journal editor in chief and associate publisher. He can be reached at 707-521-4251 or bbollinger@busjrnl.com.