Sonoma County’s two largest population centers have big plans moving forward to tackle the tricky business of keeping the local economy humming amid ultralow unemployment and scant options to house enterprises and their employees.
“Though the economy is quite good, it has resulted in low availability of workers,” said Ethan Brown, business retention and expansion program manager for the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.
A bigger proportion of the Sonoma County workforce is employed than in California and the nation as a whole. The county unemployment rate ended last year at 2.6 percent, lower but on par with where it was a year earlier (2.8 percent), according to the most recent state figures. To put that in perspective, December joblessness was 4.2 percent for California and 3.9 percent for the nation.
And when the October 2017 firestorms wiped out over 6,000 North Bay homes, including about 5 percent of Santa Rosa’s housing stock, that made the already challenging task of holding onto and attracting employers even more difficult than it was before the wildfires, according to Brown and his counterparts in Santa Rosa and Petaluma. “Not a lot of huge companies are looking to move here, knowing what the housing and employment situation is,” Brown said. Rather, the newcomers tend to be smaller companies, often marketing and design firms, that launched elsewhere in the Bay Area, and the principals are looking to relocate to Sonoma County for lifestyle reasons, he said.
A few years ago, county research found that more than three-quarters of local businesses employ fewer than 10.
“We tend to look to large employers as drivers of the economy, but small employers are where most the job creation happens,” Brown said.
County and city business boosters have been moving rolling out initiatives to tackle the dilemma of short supply of housing and suitable workers. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved the Strategic Sonoma (strategicsonoma.com) five-year effort last July.
Two goals of that plan were the creation of the Sonoma County AgTech Innovation and Manufacturing Alliance and the Talent Alignment Council. The alliance is meant to take input from local producers in various industries and connect them with resources such as the 101mfg and California Manufacturers Council trade groups, Brown said.
Fifteen local manufacturers attended the first alliance meeting, held Jan. 16, and another session is planned for the next two months.
Brown has been working with a local manufacturer that had been planning to move out of state, partly because of staffing challenges. He said it looks promising that the employer will stay local via programs such as the California Competes tax credits, manufacturer sales-tax exclusions and recruitment help from Sonoma County JobLink.The first meeting of the Talent Alignment Council — a joint effort with employers, Sonoma State University, Santa Rosa Junior College and Empire College to retain local graduates — was late last year and another is planned for mid-March, with the goal of meeting quarterly, Brown said.
“It’s about pursuing opportunities for what used to be called internships but is now called experiential learning,” Brown said.
On a parallel track is the North Bay Construction Corps program, now in its third year, which trains high school graduates in the trades. It’s backed by North Coast Builders Exchange, CTE Foundation Sonoma County and Sonoma County Office of Education.
Barriers and solutions for infill development in Sonoma County
4 key barriers
1. Market uncertainty due to unknown demand for infill in key cities and urban areas in Sonoma County.
2. Lack of demonstrated viability and financing for infill and car-free living
3. Lack of supportive policy and process.
4. High costs and fees to build infill.
7 near-term priorities
1. Pilot projects with public partnership with possible concessions regarding fees, land purchase and streamlined entitlements.
2. Rent guarantees for employees from employers to boost demand for infill.
3. A joint powers agency (JPA) or renewal enterprise district (RED) to guide and fund infill development.
4. Zoning, parking requirement and development fee reforms to encourage rather than stymie infill development.
5. Improved availability of public sector infill financing and enhanced access to sales and use taxes.
6. California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) streamlining for qualifying infill (e.g., AB 2267).
7. A market study and project development navigator to help streamline infill investment and deployment.
Source: “Accelerating Infill in Santa Rosa & Sonoma County,” Council of Infill Builders, November 2018 (nbbj.news/sonomainfill)