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Sonoma County’s new economic development chief brings an outsider’s fresh perspective

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Sheba Person-Whitley knows firsthand how economic development can make a difference in someone’s life.

The new executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board grew up in a poor area of rural North Carolina. That’s a stark difference from our county’s relative affluence, having some of the nation’s best winegrape vineyards, acclaimed restaurants and a median annual income of $71,769.

“I’m a statistical anomaly is how I would describe myself. … I grew up in a trailer park,” said Person-Whitley, a 41-year-old mother of two. “I grew up in an area where there was very little long-term economic opportunity.”

For decades, her native Franklin County had been a bastion of textile production until the domestic industry cratered in the 1990s because of cheaper foreign imports. Tobacco farming served as a backstop, but that work dried up, too.

The saving grace for Person-Whitley was a family move closer to Raleigh and its high-tech research hub of pharmaceutical companies. Pushed by her mother, she graduated from high school and earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from North Carolina State University. That put her on a career path that’s now led to Sonoma County.

As an African-American woman, she works in a high-profile role that pays her a $138,084 annual salary in a county with a black population of just 2%, and only a few top black officials such as Barbie Robinson, director of the county’s Department of Health Services, and Sonoma County Fire Marshal James Williams.

“When you are working on anything, you have to make sure people have a seat at the table,” said Person-Whitley, who previously worked as economic development manager for the city of Stockton. “They need to feel welcome at the table, not that you just invited them.”

Diversity is central to Person-Whitley’s mission as she takes over from Ben Stone, who led the well-respected economic development board for more than 30 years, taking it from a one-man government agency to a 12-person staff.

The agency publishes key reports on various local economic sectors and serves as a resource for an array of area companies, from startup enterprises to longtime businesses. For example, the board helps promote job-training efforts and assists with a popular microlending program.

Person-Whitley has been surprised by the gracious welcome she has received here compared to other areas of the country she has worked in. Her former positions include senior international trade manager for Louisiana Economic Development and various roles with the North Carolina Department of Commerce.

“Everyone here has been welcoming in ways I have not experienced before,” she said.

Still, Person-Whitley acknowledged that in her less than two months on the job she has been the only person of color or one of a few in many of the meetings and outreach gatherings she has attended — a notable exception was a June luncheon hosted by Los Cien, the county’s largest Latino leadership organization. That has reinforced her goal to focus on greater diversity, extending the Latino outreach that the economic development board has established to include blacks, the LGBTQ community, veterans and other groups.

“I would love to see us do more in diversity and serving underserved populations. I think there is a great opportunity around that as well,” she said.

She has some history in those areas. Highlights of her Stockton tenure were tackling the issue of food deserts — the lack of grocery stores or farmers markets — and working on an urban agricultural proposal for community gardens and the possibility of raising small livestock.

She applauded the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors for hiring an outsider that could bring a different perspective and background rather than simply selecting an internal candidate.

Part of her charge to her economic development board staff members is to get out of the office and meet people where they work and live.

“Economic development cannot just happen from an office,” Person-Whitley said. “It’s a big county. It’s a diverse county.”

And she is leading by example. Last week on Tuesday, Person-Whitley was in west county talking to business owners and local officials to learn the challenges they face. It was a tour organized by county Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents the area whose economy is largely based on seasonal tourism and the wine industry. She intends to take similar visits to different parts of the county with the other four supervisors.

“It was really wonderful. She grasped the needs of the community,” said Hopkins, who noted that often businesspeople can’t take time out of their day to go to meetings with local officials because they have shops and stores to operate. “I’m completely inspired by her leadership and vision.”

Hopkins commended what Stone accomplished during his tenure, but she said “it’s really fantastic to have a fresh set of eyes” for the economic development board and praised Person-Whitley’s commitment to social justice. The timing of her arrival here to succeed Stone suited her family because her daughter will start high school in August and her son will enter kindergarten. Her husband, Rameke, is an information technology professional.

Person-Whitley will have to tackle diversity in the various regions of Sonoma County, especially in terms of income gaps and economic opportunities. For instance, she’ll work with people in the bustling area of Petaluma that is serving as a bedroom community for commuters who work in San Francisco, the gentrifying Roseland neighborhood in Santa Rosa and pockets around the Sonoma Valley where many low-income families still reside.

Her recent experience in Stockton should be helpful, said Micah Runner, her boss there and now deputy city manager for Rancho Cordova. Stockton is the largest city and the county seat in San Joaquin County, but Person-Whitley made sure to reach out to colleagues in smaller cities as well as in unincorporated areas to make sure their concerns were addressed in regional economic development efforts.

“Any good economic development professional knows the boundary of the city doesn’t stop in the marketplace,” Runner said. “As the big city in the region, she still worked hard to include the regional places.”

She also uses the same outreach approach with her staff, looking for input before trying to implement changes at the economic development board.

“I have thoughts and ideas, but what I don’t want to do is come in and impose my thoughts on others without taking into account the potential implications,” Person-Whitley said.

While tourism and the wine industry are the two main economic drivers in Sonoma County, she wants to build on diversification toward other sectors, including efforts to bolster and promote the outdoors industry that brought in $731 million last year to the local economy.

“You have to be fluid and recognize the changing times,” Person-Whitley said. “Diversification puts you in a better place.”

But there is a limit. One area in which she expressed skepticism is the pressure sometimes put on communities to land a major company, such as the recent frenzy nationwide of cities vying to land the East Coast headquarters of Seattle-based Amazon. It resulted in an arms race among more than 200 communities offering billions of dollars in economic incentives to woo the e-commerce behemoth. Ultimately, Amazons officials selected northern Virginia.

During her time working in economic development in North Carolina, the Tar Heel State was a finalist for a large automotive plant at least three times, but it lost the bidding wars to other, more generous Southern states.

“We got beat up by the governor’s office multiple times,” Person-Whitley said. “There is a lot of pressure that comes usually from the political leadership to go after the big fish.”

Not surprisingly, she thinks economic development officials would be in a better position, if they listened to their residents on such significant matters — by getting out of the office to meet with them.

“The harder way to do it is through a comprehensive community engagement process. … Involve your community and incorporate that to what you exactly need,” Person-Whitley said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com.

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