Sonoma County economic forum calls for working together on wildfire recovery
About 2,600 housing permit applications are in the rebuilding pipeline, equaling about half of the total homes lost in the county in the October wildfires, Sonoma County Economic Development Board Executive Director Ben Stone told a Rohnert Park audience of more than 500 Feb. 2 at the Sonoma County Economic Development Board’s State of the County forum.
The goal of the forum was to review economic recovery plans while looking to the future for opportunities, challenges, initiatives and prospects for the county to restore its infrastructure and vitality. Fires in the county consumed 110,000 acres and 7,000 structures, including some 5,000 residences
“Some 200,000 people and organizations have come together to donate to disaster relief funds, to support Go Sonoma County local retail campaign, and form partnerships with civic, public and private groups -- such as Strategic Sonoma -- co-chaired by Pam Chanter, vice president of Vantreo Insurance Brokerage, and Brett Martinez, CEO of Redwood Credit Union,” Stone said. “In addition, a $3 million grant has been issued to support and retrain dislocated workers affected by the fires.”
Stone acknowledged Sonoma County Board of Supervisor’s Chairman James Gore as being instrumental in bringing the California Economic Summit to Sonoma County on Nov. 15-16 to address a statewide action plan.
On Feb. 6, at a meeting to dicuss the housing issue, supervisors floated an ambitious goal of building 30,000 new housing units over five years, an effort deepened by the October wildfires
At the economic development forum, Gore said, “With a loss of housing stock, today we are 17,500 units behind where we want to be. Before the fires, we only built about 500 units each year – some are now saying in order to house the workforce and catch up, we need upwards of 90,000 units.”
Saying it will take a combined brain trust to get this done. Gore cautioned, “I’m tired of doomsday scenarios and pessimistic outlooks. We have to forge our resolve to achieve impact. Collective impact starts with having collective responsibility. We know we are stronger when we work together.”
Chris Coursey, mayor of Santa Rosa, said, “Recent events have forever changed our community, with 5% of our housing destroyed. It’s not business as usual and we’re not going to do things the way they always have been done. Santa Rosa will recover from the fire by the city and county working together to achieve a better tomorrow.”
He cited the recent opening of the Resilient City Permit Center and its decision to lower fees, cut city bureaucracy and speed turnaround time. Coursey noted “1,700 people have visited this center and 1,200 phone calls have been received with 10 residential permits already approved – including the first home to rise in Coffey Park. But we are far from being out of the woods. We must learn to both walk AND chew gum.”
A special City of Santa Rosa committee, called Build And Rebuild (BARB), has been formed with members of several county and regional organizations to focus on recovery issues, however, Coursey asserted, “We need to do more and keep our foot on the gas.”
He reminded the audience that Santa Rosa had a Housing Action Plan before the fire calling for 5,000 new homes in seven years. “Now we need 8,000. Our leaders need to be bold right now, develop forward-thinking solutions and exciting new development in downtown for mixed use, mixed income groups looking for access to enhanced transit and to produce more jobs.”
Forum guest speaker, Dr. Jerry Nickelsburg, Ph.D., a native of Santa Rosa and senior economist with the UCLA Anderson Forecast, provided an economic forecast for 2018.
“Sonoma County has enjoyed a soaring economy. Now it has to address the economics of recovery in light of the new tax bill, and the overall outlook for California. Historically, we have had low unemployment – the lowest in 16-17 years. Over the past three decades, there have only been a few months when it has been lower. At the same time, we’ve set record employment records -- the highest ever – which is very good news.”
Looking at regional employment growth over 12 months, some areas that were lagging are now growing faster than the U.S. He said the county as a whole has experienced 15% growth since the depth of the Great Recession.
Nickelsburg noted that a key factor limiting the county’s ability to grow faster is the lack of standing resources here to support it, coupled with the high price of housing -- now at record levels -- that discourages major inbound migration. In addition, Sonoma relies on farming, tourism and retail sectors, while San Francisco is growing at an accelerated pace with its concentration of jobs and technology dominance.