A year of economic recovery in Sonoma County brought expansions in key industries, an improving job market and major commercial developments, including the debut of a Las Vegas-style casino on the outskirts of Rohnert Park.
The wine industry enjoyed another enormous harvest, and craft beer king Lagunitas Brewing continued its rapid expansion.
The housing market improved as foreclosures dropped to a seven-year low, and local hospitals and clinics restructured operations as they prepared for the new federal health care law, which extended insurance to tens of thousands of people in Sonoma County.
Here's a look at the top local business stories of 2013, as selected by Press Democrat staff.
<b>1) Graton Rancheria casino opens</b>
After a decade of debates, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria opened its $800 million casino on the western border of Rohnert Park in November.
Spanning 340,000 square feet, it's one of the largest casinos in California. It is expected to draw 6.1 million people annually and rake in $533 million a year in gambling revenues within two years, according to a report prepared for Station Casinos, which manages the casino.
Massive crowds flocked to the casino on its opening day, with cars and busses clogging Highway 101 and determined gamblers walking across fields to get in the doors.
Agreements the tribe signed with local governments will pay Sonoma County about $9 million a year for 20 years to address negative impacts of the casino, and a total of $251 million over 20 years to Rohnert Park for public safety, education and other community services.
"It's a force to be reckoned with in gaming," said Dennis Whittlesey, a longtime Indian law attorney who has worked on numerous casino developments.
<b>2) Housing market improves</b>
Foreclosures dropped to a seven-year low in Sonoma County in 2013, a bit of good news in a region where 11,000 homes were lost to foreclosure in the past seven years.
For the first time since housing prices crashed, the rate of distressed home sales in Sonoma County fell to single digits in October.
More than $2.6 billion in homes and condominiums had been sold by the end of November, the highest dollar volume for the period since 2006. Home prices rose 21 percent over the course of the year, reaching a median price of $453,000 in November. With the rebound, home prices had regained almost half the ground lost when the median tumbled from a record high of $619,000 in August 2005 to a low of $305,000 in February 2009.
"We are still a ways away, but the market is slowly re-establishing equilibrium," said John Walsh, president of DataQuick, a San Diego-based information service.
<b>3) Health care reform: Covered California debuts</b>
Tens of thousands of North Coast residents became eligible to buy health insurance or enroll in expanded Medicaid options in October with the launch of Covered California, the state exchange created by President Barack Obama's signature health care law.
The Affordable Care Act triggered the most extensive change to the nation's health care system since Medicare and Medicaid became law in 1965. Under the new law, consumers who were previously rejected for private insurance because of a pre-existing condition are able to obtain coverage, and those who cannot afford to buy their own insurance can receive government-subsidized premiums.
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