Following a year when Sonoma County businesses provided some of the fastest job growth in the nation, local economic development groups are rolling out initiatives to continue the momentum in 2013.

[caption id="attachment_68706" align="alignright" width="330"] Carolyn Stark, Ben Stone, Ingrid Alverde[/caption]

The county's newest economic development group -- BEST -- said its assistance to Sonoma County companies resulted in the creation of 841 jobs last year. Called Sonoma County Building Economic Success Together, the group will spend this year on efforts that include responding to the needs of individual businesses and coordinating a new industry group for the county's specialty food manufacturers, according to Executive Director Carolyn Stark.

Those efforts will seek to compliment the work of other groups like the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, which plans to hold a number of new conferences this year while boosting its offerings in direct business assistance and economic research of sectors like the region's growing roster of craft breweries, according to Ben Stone, executive director of the group.

"Our work is not done in isolation," said Ms. Stark. BEST collaborates with other economic development groups and coordinates efforts with the Economic Development Board, she added.

BEST, a five-year initiative launched in 2011 as a $3.25 million public-private investment under the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, began the year by launching a regional business retention and expansion initiative known as "100 in 100." Meeting with leaders from more than 100 Sonoma County companies representing nearly 25,000 jobs in 100 days, volunteers sought to determine common needs and concerns among a variety of industries.

That outreach helped fuel a stream of what BEST calls "qualified business assistance requests" for help with issues like permitting, talent recruitment and prospective connections to other companies. BEST responded to 169 companies and a total of 306 requests last year, following each request to its resolution and determining if the work helped to create jobs.

"We were very careful in how we counted those jobs," Ms. Stark said. "If the companies went on to hire people due to that work, we counted that."

The 100 in 100 initiative also involved interviews of Sonoma County executives. Eighty percent called for better customer service from county government and a streamlined regulatory process. A majority said that they were unable to fill vacancies with local talent, and many called for greater connectivity to the east through the Charles M. Schulz--Sonoma County Airport and for a greater number of suppliers in the county, according to the report.

Efforts for 2012 included the support of a Technology Industry Group, or TIG, representing high-tech and precision manufacturers in Sonoma County. BEST is helping to facilitate a similar group for specialty food and beverage manufacturers this year.

Not all of the efforts in 2012 were successful, such as a proposal to attract Lucasfilm to Sonoma County. Yet in bringing together county stakeholders to develop such a proposal laid the groundwork for how similar collaborative efforts might occur in the coming years.

Ingrid Alverde, redevelopment and economic development manager for the city of Petaluma, said that the distinct identity of cities in Sonoma County has helped support a local focus on economic development. This year, Petaluma is embarking on an effort to coordinate efforts of the city, the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce, the downtown association and other stakeholders in the city, she said.

After working with BEST to help develop a business attraction proposal in 2012, Ms. Alverde also noted the impact of taking part in regional efforts.

"I think each city should maintain its own identity," she said. Yet "the parts are better when they work together. BEST provides a great platform where we can work together without losing our identities."

In the coming year, BEST will work to target five clusters identified by the EDB Innovation Action Council, which include advanced manufacturing and food manufacturing, and repeat its 100 in 100 effort. The group will also continue to identify suppliers who may want to move to the county.

BEST plans to embark on a regional marking campaign as well, promoting the innovation of the region's companies. Target metrics for 2013 include the creation of 500 direct jobs and the raising of an additional $100,000 through BEST's ongoing capital campaign.

In pursuing its own economic development initiatives in 2013, the Economic Development Board has developed a matrix to determine where it may overlap and enhance efforts by BEST, Mr. Stone said.

New workshops this year will include a May conference about exporting from the region and the newly formed regional free-trade zone designation, he said. There will be an early fall conference about selling services to government and large local companies, a conference concerning the current landscape for shipping goods and an industry gathering for craft brewers and distilleries in Sonoma County.

The board is also facilitating a Financial Services Roundtable this year. It is designed to be a gathering of lenders and other entities that will discuss how to enhance the availability of financing for the region's small businesses.

"Our goal is to have one new fund in place by the end of this year," Mr. Stone said.

The group has hired two new staff members to both reach out to the region's businesses and provide immediate troubleshooting to concerns of businesses contacting the Economic Development Board, he said. The group has also launched a new set of free tools to provide market data to small companies.

"These business data tools help give small companies the data that larger companies have," Mr. Stone said.