Report: Sonoma County economy to accelerate in 2015

[caption id="attachment_89285" align="alignnone" width="500"] Sonoma's gross county product is projected to grow at around 3 percent annually through 2017. (courtesy of Sonoma County Economic Development Board)[/caption]

SANTA ROSA -- Sonoma County's economy is poised to further recover through 2015, bolstered by national growth that will spur gains in tourism and the wine industry, while additional support will come from a growing life sciences cluster and a stronger housing market, according a new report on the local economy.

The report, prepared by Moody's Analytics for the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, predicts that the county's unemployment rate will fall below 6 percent by next year, slipping to 5.7 percent then reaching 5.2 percent by 2017.

"The county will maintain its high quality of life and attractiveness for high-skilled workers," said the report, released Tuesday. "However, elevated costs will keep it an average performer over the extended forecast."

While wine and tourism are considered strong points for the economy, "limited available land for new wineries and commercial construction" and "high business costs relative to other areas of California and the west" are among the county's weaknesses, according to the study.

Nevertheless, the regional economy fared well at the end of 2013, the report said. Highlighted in the review was the recently opened Graton Casino, which accounted for significant hiring and a general boost to the tourism economy, already a $1.5 billion industry.

"A strengthening U.S. recovering and an improved outlook for wine country bode well for visitor-dependent industries," the report said. Through January, passenger traffic at Charles M. Schulz--Sonoma County Airport increased by 6.6 percent from 12 months prior. Similarly, the average hotel occupancy and room rates through October were up over the year.

The wine industry is also well-positioned to take advantage of consumer interest, especially when combined with the tourism industry, the study found.

"A stronger U.S. recovery as well as high capital gains from equities will help drive wine sales in 2014," the report stated. "High-markup hotel sales increased in 2013, providing a lucrative sales channel for high-priced county wines."

In the technology realm, the outlook for Sonoma County's medical-device manufacturers is favorable, although the biggest employer in this cluster, Agilent’s recently spun-off division Keysight Technologies, reported a 14 percent drop in sales in the fourth quarter of 2013. Still, other large-scale medical tech employers, like Medtronic, will help maintain the cluster, which is poised to benefit from increased access to health care by an aging population, on both a domestic and international level.

The housing market likely will see an increase in construction, the report said. Although housing prices appreciation eased, and sales fell by more than 10 percent over the year.

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