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The members of the city's new Economic Competitiveness Task Force on Tuesday got a pep talk from the mayor, some suggestions from the public, and something they may not have expected — a homework assignment.

The 11 members of the task force were each asked to interview 10 people about what they think would make Santa Rosa economically stronger and report the results back to the group in three weeks.

The idea was to kick-start a broad discussion about what needs to change in a city that has developed a reputation as a difficult place to do business, Mayor Ernesto Olivares said.

"It is not just the job of the city or economic development department to deal with economic issues in Santa Rosa," Olivares said. "Economic development truly is something that needs to be handled by everybody in our community."

Olivares, a retired city police lieutenant, likened the economic challenges facing the city to someone who had been in a "horrific crash." The bleeding has stopped, but a long road to recovery lies ahead, he said.

"We probably won't be the same way we were before we got into that crash, but we're going to do our best to get back on our feet again," he said.

The inaugural meeting of the task force opened with largely optimistic comments from about two dozen members of the public who attended the 7:30 a.m. meeting at the Finley Center.

Steve Schofield, an officer at North Coast Bank, said he applauded the group's mission because small business owners in the area are hurting more than people know.

"They are afraid of losing their jobs. They are afraid of losing their homes. They're really struggling to put food on the table," Schofield said.

Landscape architect Mike Cook attended the meeting with his young daughter in his arms and urged the task force to remember that drawing more businesses to the area helps those who serve businesses to thrive as well.

"I'm excited that you're pulling this together and I'm looking forward to the results," Cook said.

Not everyone praised the effort. Anne Seeley, co-chair of Concerned Citizens for Santa Rosa, suggested the task force would hold televised meetings in the City Council chambers if it really wanted broad involvement by the community.

Julie Combs, who described herself as a community organizer, chuckled when Chairman Jake Ours described the group as diverse. She later explained that it seemed to her to be anything but. Most task force members are business people or represent business groups, she noted. Often what makes a city desirable for a business is not the efficiency of its permit process but quality of life issues for its workers, like good schools, Combs said.

"I think we'll miss those links if we don't expand the group we talk to," she said.

Ours, the former head of economic development for San Rafael, said his key goals for the task force were to find ways to retain the businesses that are here, help them grow and attract new ones.

One of the best ways they could do that, Ours said, was to "kill the idea that Santa Rosa is not a good place to do business."

Councilman John Sawyer said he hoped the group would foster free-wheeling conversations and brain-storming where "nothing is off the table," even a suggestion to "burn down City Hall and rip up the General Plan."

"We want to hear it all," Sawyer said.

The group agreed to meet again April 5, and about every two weeks after that.