ROHNERT PARK – Marin and Napa counties are on track to be the “shining stars” of economic recovery in the six-county North Bay Area in 2012, though the enduring caution of commercial lenders and other pressures will likely keep growth modest across the entire region this year, according to regional economist Dr. Robert Eyler.

Presenting his forecast to a packed room at the recent annual Sonoma State University Economic Outlook Conference, Dr. Eyler said that regional economic development and investment in industries outside of wine and tourism would be key to boosting economics in the region in the long term.

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“We need to convince businesses to come here and stay here, or they’ll go where it snows,” said Dr. Eyler, noting that business can often conserve their bottom line by relocating to places less temperate than the North Bay.

The annual conference held Feb. 23 featured Dr. Eyler’s forecast and further insights from California State Controller John Chiang, Amy’s Kitchen CEO Andy Berliner and political consultant Brian Sobel.

Attendees also observed a moderated economic development forum featuring Carolyn Stark, director of Sonoma County's Building Economic Success Together, Napa Mayor Jill Techel and Remy Gross, director of technology transfer at the Buck Institute.

Using an index that combined six “leading indicators” like default notices, building permits and unemployment insurance claims, Dr. Eyler, who directs the Center for Regional Economic Analysis at Sonoma State University and is the school's Frank Howard Allen professor of economics, grouped the six North Bay counties by economic performance and compared them to the data for the nation as a whole.

While no North Bay county beat the national average, Marin and Napa were rated highest in the index among the six counties. The two counties have also experienced steep growth since the middle of 2010 in a separate index measuring non-agricultural employment, retail sales and personal income.

That growth has leveled in Sonoma County over the course of 2011, though Dr. Eyler said the area was experiencing the third most robust recovery in the North Bay.

The other North Bay counties of Mendocino, Solano and Lake were each moving “in step” economically, Dr. Eyler said, with Mendocino County rating highest among the three in his leading indicators.

Marin had a 6.5 percent unemployment rate in December, a rate including the broader statistical area of San Francisco and San Mateo counties as measured by the state’s Economic Development Department. Napa had an unemployment rate of 9 percent; Sonoma’s rate was 9 percent; Solano was 10.5 percent; Lake was at 17.1 percent and Mendocino County had an unemployment rate of 10.2 percent.

Some industries have seen stronger growth than others: Dr. Eyler said that supporting exportable goods would be important for future North Bay economy.

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One Sonoma County company that continues to grow is Amy’s Kitchen, and Mr. Berliner explained to attendees that a good portion of his company’s high-quality frozen foods are manufactured locally and exported internationally.

“You go into a grocery store in Hong Kong, and you see a full door of Amy’s food – all made here in Sonoma County,” Mr. Berliner said.

Having recently opened an on-site healthcare center in Sonoma County, Mr. Berliner said that Amy’s has a focus on employees and products that has endured since the company took off with a $20,000 bank loan from 25 years ago.

Today, Amy’s has manufacturing facilities in Santa Rosa, Medford, Ore. and Corby England, with sales nearing $350 million in 15 countries, he said.

The cost of manufacturing was not necessarily a driver to open facilities outside of Sonoma County, Mr. Berliner said. Though expansion talks occurred locally, the company ultimately found barriers to expand here.

However, Mr. Berliner said that Sonoma County remained an excellent place for business.

“I traveled the whole world this year,” he said. “Every time you get off the plane and come home, you say, ‘Oh, thank God I’m home.’ This is the best place in the world.”

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Efforts are under way to bring additional companies to Sonoma County and preserve the businesses that are already here. Carolyn Stark, director of Sonoma County's “Building Economic Success Together” or BEST group, said that a coordinated approach led to success in her previous economic development efforts in the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs.

“In order for our region to succeed, we needed to think as one and not as nine different cities,” she said.

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Mr. Chiang, state controller, also emphasized the importance of funding education to maintain the state and region’s competitiveness on a global stage.

“Either we increase taxes in the state of California, or we cut education,” he said, acknowledging the deep cuts already affecting the system. “We compete in a global economy.”