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How can Sonoma County get back to work?

  • Justin Hansel, left, standing next to a new Mustang and Henry Hansel standing next to his 1974 Mustang at the Hansel Ford dealership in Santa Rosa, Feb. 9, 2011.

With unemployment in Sonoma County stuck at or near double digits for more than two years, local business, labor and government leaders are eagerly awaiting to see what President Obama proposes tonight to create more jobs across the nation.

Few expect a quick turnaround in the local economy, which has shed 21,000 jobs since 2007. More than one in 10 workers in Sonoma County have seen their jobs disappear over the last four years, according to the state Employment Development Department.

And although the local economy has slowly started to create jobs again, even the most optimistic economic forecasts warn it will take years to replace those that were lost.

Several local business leaders expressed support for an increase in federal spending on roads and infrastructure, which would put construction crews back to work. But even many of them said tax credits and other possible stimulus measures seem more like a re-election strategy for President Obama than a long-term approach to boost employment and help the economy.

"No president has gotten re-elected with unemployment levels where they are today," said Henry Hansel, president of the Hansel Auto Group, the county's largest car dealer and one of its biggest retail companies.

At one point, Hansel cut a quarter of his workforce as consumers slowed spending. Today he has 460 employees at his seven dealerships in Santa Rosa and Petaluma — and he plans to add 25 new workers over the next four months, anticipating a jump in auto sales late this year.

But a tax credit won't boost or accelerate that hiring.

"The only reason we're going to hire more people is we can justify it from a business standpoint," he said.

Nearly three out of four jobs shed in Sonoma County during the recession have come from just four sectors: construction, government, retail and manufacturing.

About 26,100 Sonoma County residents were looking for work last month, more than double the 11,200 unemployed workers in 2007. Unemployment has improved slightly over the past year, but it will take time to put idled job-seekers back to work.


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