Marilyn Ponton, Rohnert Park's normally low-key development services manager, laughed and spoke in exclamation points as she said, "We're on the map! We've been discovered!"
The Friendly City's economy, if not quite booming yet, is making loud noises as 2014 starts. The shift in fortune buttresses city leaders' claims that they have been laying the groundwork for an economic recovery and further development.
It is home to two high-profile venues that draw visitors from around the Bay Area -#8212; The Green Music Center and the Graton casino. New businesses are opening as the city reaps the benefits of changes it made in permitting procedures. And a payment from the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria has cracked open the door to long-awaited housing projects.
All that is a far cry from three years ago.
Then facing a $6 million budget deficit, the City Council declared a fiscal emergency and there was talk of bankruptcy. Three of the public swimming pools that the city takes great pride in were shut. Dozens of city jobs were cut. Between 2005 and 2010, at least 2,500 private industry jobs were lost in Rohnert Park, even before one of its biggest employers left town.
Today, the city still faces troubling factors. According to the latest data, it has the county's highest retail, industrial and office space vacancy rates at 8.1, 10.4 and 43.7 percent respectively. And its retail and office vacancy rates have inched up over the year.
Nonetheless, the city's business climate has gained distinct momentum, a change that has been noticed countywide.
"It's really a story of transformation. There's an awareness now that Rohnert Park is kind of a phoenix. It is starting to rise," said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.
With the year-old Green Center at Sonoma State University and the vast, new Graton Resort - Casino, Sonoma County's third-largest city suddenly boasts projects representing $940 million in investments made by others but from which the city intends to benefit.
"Both those venues bring people to town for a couple of hours, and we have to make the best of those hours while they're here," said Mayor Joe Callinan. But, he added, "in the long term, our sustainability is those businesses that are going to come to town and stick around."
And noticeably, in the past two years as the economy has gradually recovered from the brutal national downturn, that, too, has started to happen.
A steady stream of businesses have opened in Rohnert Park, including a Walgreens; a Chipotle, the national high-end Mexican fast-food chain; a micro-distillery; and two fitness chains. Several more enterprises, including a Panera Bread, Amy's Kitchen's first fast-food restaurant, and Get Lean, a food processing company, are expected to set up shop this year.
Santa Rosa restaurateur Nino Rabaa is set to open Flipside Brewhouse in a space formerly occupied by one of the city's few higher-end eateries, Latitude, which shut in 2010.
And one of the country's largest developers of mixed-use projects has purchased a vacant, 29-acre office park next to the planned SMART commuter rail station, smack in the city's center, creating tantalizing possibilities. The deal closed Dec. 24.
There is not quite a consensus on what should happen to the property, which State Farm Insurance departed in 2011 after 34 years. But it is seen as a defining space in the city of 41,000, which was designed as a tranquil, middle-class, suburban haven distinguished by its neighborhood amenities, but lacks a defined downtown.