Future of North Bay business: 5G, robotics, adventure tourism, sustainable wine grapes, millennial recruitment

What will the future of business be in the North Bay and what innovations will drive it was explored Thursday by a panel of experts at the 27th annual Sonoma State University Economic Outlook Conference, which drew about 250 people to the campus in Rohnert Park.

Focusing on innovation in the future, an executive with Santa Rosa-based Keysight Technologies chose one he said will have a life-changing impact.

Hamish Gray, senior vice president, said it is 5G - the so-called “fifth generation” of cellular connectivity. Its ultrafast speed, as well as ability to support millions of devices, isn't fully here yet, but when it arrives, the implications for everyday life will be large, he said.

Devices on 5G will not only communicate with each other, but will do so “without the need of human interaction,” he said.

It will not only allow cars that drive themselves, but one day could facilitate more robots on work sites, even outdoors framing houses. “The internet of things will become the interaction of things,” Gray said.

It could also mean an increasing number of people will not have to physically be at work, but work just as well from other locations and still be in constant communication.

As a present day outlook of a key North Bay industry, Karissa Kruse, president, Sonoma County Winegrowers and executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation, said as previously announced, 99% of its members have reached the group's goal of growing wine on a sustainable basis.

“Local growers have always been conservationists,” she said, but now that is formalized, even to the point of putting a certification of being environmentally mindful on wine labels.

Another powerhouse North Bay industry - tourism - is focusing on the future of “outbound marketing,” which includes leveraging the regional Sonoma County airport's flight connections to places like Denver and Dallas.

Todd O'Leary, vice president of marketing and communications for Sonoma County Tourism, added that the industry is also eyeing how to leverage the area's cannabis industry as an attraction. Despite federal prohibitions on the product, in pot-legal California there is a growing appetite for cannabis-focused tourism, like food and cannabis combinations or spa dates.

A 22-year veteran of the travel and tourism industry, O'Leary has spent most of his career with destination marketing organizations, including San Francisco, and in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and holds a Bachelor of Science degree in urban planning and marketing.

Partnering with agencies like Sonoma County Tourism is part of the plan by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board to push another specific type of tourism - outdoor adventures.

Its executive director, Sheba Person-Whitley, said the opportunity is there to tempt visitors interested in more than a wine tasting or spa treatment, with zip-lining or kayaking experiences. A 2018 report by the board stated the area has 330 outdoor-related businesses. Outdoor recreation statewide generated $92 billion in consumer spending, or about $731 million in economic impact in Sonoma County alone.

Person-Whitley joined the board in May 2019. She began her career in economic development in 2008. Prior to accepting the job in the North Bay, she was the economic development manager for the City of Stockton in the Central Valley. She attended North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. receiving a Bachelor of Arts in communications with a concentration in public relations. She also received her Masters of Science degree from Southern New Hampshire University in Operations & Project Management.

Food also is important in the area's economic mix and Carolyn Stark, executive director of the North Bay Food Industry Group, said the 50-member group of producers of products like cheese and teas is thriving. Her members' challenge - not the only group to have it - is the area's expensive housing market and its negative effect on hiring.

To the south, in Marin County, the area is moving to generate a buzz around business.

Mike Blakeley, CEO of the Marin Economic Forum, said luring younger people to work in the county is key to an area which at present has fewer millennials (18 to 34 year olds) than many other areas, hovering at about 10%. In fact, he said, by 2030 about 40% of the Marin population will be 65 or older.

While the top industry in the area continues to be real estate - a market driven by high-priced homes - there are some businesses which are moving from south of San Francisco to Marin County.

Creating more opportunities for entrepreneurs by developing links to venture capitalists willing to invest in their vision is part of the board's focus going forward.

Unlike other areas, though, despite the presence of businesses like BioMarin Pharmaceutical, the area is underpinned by a small business economy. He said about 70% of Marin businesses have nine or fewer employees.

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