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Sonoma County economic outlook is 'strong,' officials say

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Speakers at the annual Sonoma State of The County address focused on efforts being made to help residents recover from the 2017 wildfires but also shed light on a potential economic downturn and what it could mean for the local economy, especially housing.

Dr. Jerry Nickelsburg of UCLA told an audience of about 600 in Rohnert Park that he did not expect a downturn in the county economy in the next six months, but said a potential slowdown or contraction of the national economy was likely in the coming years.

He noted housing was in short supply even before wildfires ravaged the county in 2017, destroying roughly 6,000 homes. The fires spurred a “churn” in housing, Nickelsburg said, noting those with higher incomes were able to buy up housing in the county while some at the other end of the income bracket were priced out.

He said the demand for homes in the state and Sonoma County would drive increases in home building in the coming years but said nationally rising interest rates meant home buyers could buy less with their dollars.

Nickelsburg said a historically low unemployment rate of 2.6 percent in Sonoma County meant the job market continued to favor employees.

Chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors David Rabbitt said “The state of our county is strong,” in his remarks, crediting the perseverance of residents and businesses alike.

He noted Keysight Technologies’ effort to remain in the county while the electronics testing and measurement equipment manufacturer’s headquarters recovered from fire damage and Russian River Brewing Co., with locations in Santa Rosa and Windsor, generating over $1 million for victims brewing its Sonoma Pride beer.

Rabbitt also focused on housing, noting the county had cut fees for accessory dwelling units, also known as “granny units” and had allowed the permitting process to happen over the counter, potentially leading to thousands of new housing units.

As of June the county reduced development impact fees for the units, according to Permit Sonoma, including waiving traffic and parks mitigation fees for units smaller than 750 square feet and reducing them by half for units between 751 to 1,000 square feet.

The county spends more in discretionary funds on roads than any other in the state, Rabbitt said, noting 100 miles paved in 2018 compared to about 55 miles in 2017.

Elizabeth Brown, CEO of the Community Foundation Sonoma County also discussed building and education projects in Sonoma as well as efforts to help wildfire victims recover.

Over 7,000 donors contributed $15 million to the Sonoma County Resilience Fund to help fire victims recover, Brown said. She also noted Legal Aid of Sonoma County served over 150 clients in the wake of the disasters.

“Money while essential, is not the only currently required for our community recover,” Brown said. “We also need a wealth of creativity, collaboration, and courage.”

She highlighted the opportunity to look at underlying inequities in the county in the wake of the fires, urging residents to focus, “not just on the symptoms, but on the system.”

The Mapping and Alignining People Place and Plans program was an example of this approach, she said. The project was aimed at creating a unifying vision for recovery from the wildfires by integrating efforts underway across the county and is intended to work alongside recovery plans developed by Sonoma County and Santa Rosa.

Executive Director of the Economic Development Board Ben Stone introduced the speakers and was congratulated on his retirement, receiving an award for more than 30 years leading the economic board.

Chase DiFeliciantonio covers banking, accounting, cannabis and technology and the law. Reach him at chased@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4257

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