As business leaders look ahead to 2018, the effects of the devastating October wildfires are still largely on their minds.
No matter the sector, all local businesses were affected by the fires given the huge scope of the damage: billions of dollars in losses; the destruction of more than 5,000 residences in Sonoma County; and the death of more 40 people across the region.
The fires caused the lack of affordable housing in the area to truly become a crisis, which is a major concern for employers who want to recruit and retain a talented workforce. There is a fear within the business community that they could lose workers or customers if the rebuilding process is delayed or prolonged, threatening the strong growth in the local economy over the last decade after it emerged from the recession.
“For the county to continue its growth, it must rebuild quickly and efficiently and get the shadow of the fires behind us,” said Robert Eyler, an economics professor and director of the Center for Regional Economic Analysis at Sonoma State University. “The outlook for the county economy in 2018 is tricky due to the unknown amount of construction that will be engaged to help with reconstruction in Santa Rosa and beyond.”
The Press Democrat this month asked a few local business leaders and analysts to give their outlook for 2018. The answers, provided via email, have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Brett Martinez, president and CEO of Redwood Credit Union in Santa Rosa:
What is the biggest obstacle that is emerging in the quest for rebuilding after the fires? I think the biggest challenge will be how many homes can we build and how fast can we rebuild them. I am starting to hear some good news about people who have committed to a price that was not as bad as originally expected, and the rebuild timeline is fairly quick. If this becomes more of the norm, that will be good news.
Are you worried about recruiting and retaining employees given the cost of housing? Short term, yes, but I think it will work itself out in the long term. This is still an amazing place to live and raise a family. Retention has always been a concern (with regard to the cost of housing), but since the fires, recruitment from out of the area could pose big problems. It’s very difficult to recruit great employees if they can’t find a place to live.
Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism:
Where will hotels get the workers given such a tight local labor market? The labor market was already tight prior to the fires. We will pull from the same labor market that we have in the past, and we are working with local schools and education systems to raise awareness of hospitality as a professional industry, either full time or as part-time or seasonal employment.
Do you have any concern about tourists not showing up in the spring as a result of the fires? We are confident tourists will return to Sonoma County in the spring. While the fires certainly impacted immediate travelers’ decisions to visit the area, other destinations facing similar situations have rebounded fairly quickly. While we believe this will happen here, we’re being proactive in getting the word out now and investing in programs that drive immediate and long-term visitation.