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Sonoma County economy finally begins to grow

After shedding 20,000 jobs over the last three years, Sonoma County's economy should finally return to growth this year, according to a new forecast.

"The fundamentals are getting better," Steve Cochrane, managing director for Moody's Analytics, told business leaders Wednesday at a Santa Rosa conference.

Sonoma County will add 3,000 jobs this year, with similar growth in 2012 and 2013, according to his forecast.

The recession wiped out more than 1 out of 10 jobs in Sonoma County since the economy slowed in 2007. But a recovery is now underway, Cochrane said, driven by surging corporate profits, a decline in household debt, increased lending and a foreseeable end to the housing crisis.

"It feels like there is a palpable change," he said. "We are coming out of it. The turnaround may be here to stay."

While most signs point to an improving economy, risks remain, Cochrane told about 375 people attending the annual Sonoma County Economic Outlook Conference at Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel.

High fuel costs, government spending cuts, global instability and home foreclosures continue to threaten the recovery, he said.

The local housing market hasn't hit bottom, but it's close, Cochrane said.

"We'll see prices struggle through the second half of this year," he said. "But I think we're toward the end of the downturn."

The real estate market should stabilize next year, Cochrane said. There's pent-up demand for housing, and affordability is at a record high, he said.

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