Sonoma County has plenty of big office buildings, built to suit the high-tech companies that once filled them.
But given today's economic climate, in which 85 percent of the county's businesses have 15 or fewer employees, finding tenants for them has become increasingly difficult.
Nearly a quarter of the county's office space is now vacant, a condition Moody's Economy.com recently described as "an enormous glut." And leasing experts predict that demand will remain sluggish for the next few years.
"It's bouncing along the bottom, which is really what you're saying about the economy overall," says Al Coppin, president of Keegan & Coppin, the North Bay's largest commercial real estate company.
His firm's vacancy rate estimates vary by location, from about 16 percent in Santa Rosa, Windsor and Healdsburg, to 40 percent in Rohnert Park and Petaluma.
Coppin said the market won't change much until businesses start hiring more workers and then seek new space to house them. Even then, much of the space now vacant will be too big to attract the new tenants.
"You have a building that doesn't work any more for the market," said Matt White, president and CEO of Reno's Basin Street Properties, a commercial real estate owner and developer in Sonoma County.
The county's office vacancy rate ended the first quarter at 24 percent, according to Keegan & Coppin. The rate has risen almost every quarter since at least the summer of 2007, when it stood at nearly 17 percent.
Forty percent of Petaluma's 3.2 million-square-foot supply -- 1.2 million square feet -- were vacant at the end of March.
By comparison, Sonoma County has 13.8 million square feet of office space, 3.4 million square feet of it vacant.
Petaluma's inventory includes huge buildings built in the city's Telecom Valley days when tech companies filled business parks with hundreds of office workers and research and development staffers.
For such space today, "we've got a lot of supply and very little demand," said Josh Lindberg, an associate with Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial real estate brokerage in San Rafael.
The picture looked considerably different in 2005 when the Chicago-based Equity Office Properties Trust became Sonoma County's largest commercial landlord. That year, the company paid Basin Street $263 million for 1.43 million square feet of North Bay office properties -- a price amounting to nearly $184 per square foot.
The purchase gave Equity Office a 33 percent share of Class A office space in the county and a 40-percent share in Marin County.
Today, a significant amount of that space remains empty. Five Equity Office buildings in Santa Rosa's Parkpoint business park are slated to be sold at a foreclosure auction this month in an effort to recover a debt pegged at $7.1 million.
Representatives for Equity Office were unavailable for comment.
Over the decades, Sonoma County has had employers with hundreds of employees in office parks and campus settings. They include Agilent Technologies, JDSU, State Farm Insurance and Medtronic.
Nonetheless, "we are a county of small businesses," said Ben Stone, executive director of the county's Economic Development board.
Prospects appear brighter for more modern Class A office space. Basin Street, which last summer moved its headquarters from Petaluma to Reno, completed a three-story, 63,000-square-foot office building last year on Round Barn Boulevard in Santa Rosa's high-end hillside Fountaingrove commercial office area.