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Sonoma County's economy is moving forward again, but sustaining growth may require plenty of small-scale entrepreneurs in the hospitality and technology sectors, an economics professor said Wednesday at a conference for more than 1,100 college students and business leaders.

"We have to be the center of innovation," said Sonoma State University professor Robert Eyler. Using baseball terminology to tout the benefit of numerous new businesses, he suggested it was better to "hit 100 singles" than one home run.

Eyler spoke at the university's annual economic outlook conference.

Both Wednesday's setting and its audience spoke of new possibilities. The conference was held at the university's Weill concert hall, which officially opened last fall and already has hosted such classical superstars as Lang Lang and Yo-Yo Ma.

An estimated 700 students turned out for the first portion of the conference.

The students are enrolled in a new class aimed at exposing them to the changes occurring in business, technology, politics and culture. The course, taught by the university's seven deans and the provost, is likely unique among U.S. colleges, President Ruben Armi?na said.

The young adults heard an address by former Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill, standing in the hall named for him and his wife, Joan. Weill, who moved to Sonoma in 2010, pointed to the students and said, "That is the future. God bless you, and don't screw up."

Eyler, a fixture of the conference for years, said the North Bay counties have "a very good short-term forecast."

He noted the UCLA Anderson Forecast recently reported that Sonoma County last year had the fastest job growth in all of California.

But he cautioned that the ongoing fight over spending and debt in Washington could cause enough uncertainty to slow the nation's economic growth.

The weakness in the European Union's economy could mean a stronger dollar and a reverse in tourism as Europe draws more Americans to travel there. And China's demand for energy could mean high gasoline prices here.

"Think about $5 a gallon by August," he predicted.

While coastal California shows signs of an improving economy, the inland portion still struggles in a "Japanese-like recovery."

"It's not going to be a quick turnaround in the I-5 corridor," Eyler said.

The conference was sponsored by the university and the North Bay Business Journal. Weill is a partner in Sonoma Media Investments, whose holdings include The Press Democrat and the North Bay Business Journal.

For his part, Weill suggested the university's $145 million Green Music Center should be a "great contributor to the economy of this area," and he urged businesses and local governments to help encourage the development of more hotels to serve visitors.

He also suggested Sonoma State could raise significant revenue by attracting students from other countries and other parts of the U.S. Such students would be willing to pay higher, out-of-state tuition fees.

Among other conference speakers, Petaluma-based Lagunitas Brewing Co. founder Tony Magee said the company began two decades ago on his kitchen stove but is about to open a second brewery in Chicago. Beer production in those early days was the least of his concerns, because "we're really in the storytelling business," seeking to suggest a little "mystery and romance" on each label.

Caroline Beteta, president/CEO of Visit California, suggested the local economy benefits when the industry-funded tourism group persuades foreign visitors to choose the Golden State.

"If they're not thinking California, they'll never make it to Sonoma or taste cheese at the Sonoma Cheese Factory," Beteta said.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.