During the recession, a once-bustling hub of innovation and telecom startups in northeast Petaluma came to more closely resemble a graveyard of surplus office space.
Realty signs dotted many of the two-dozen buildings within the Redwood Business Park on North McDowell Boulevard and Old Redwood Highway. Rents became "negotiable."
Hulking structures went vacant as companies downsized or went belly-up when the tech boom imploded, leaving the ponds, waterfalls and employee basketball courts deserted.
Wild ducks and geese took over grassy areas where buzzing engineers used to bounce ideas off each other for pioneering new products.
But a resurgence of activity is breathing new life into the former Telecom Valley, while at the same time offering a salve on a community psyche wounded by the depressing sight of empty buildings.
During the past several months, several hundred thousand square feet of office and warehouse space in north Petaluma has been sold to new owners or leased to businesses seeking larger quarters or new homes.
Real estate experts say the moves are primarily the product of falling prices for commercial real estate.
"It seems that there's a whole new wash of new great tenants that are either expanding or moving to Petaluma," said Matt White, president of Basin Street Properties, a development firm that was founded in Petaluma.
"It's starting to sound and feel like some of the days back in the mid-1990s when Petaluma started to take off. It's certainly due to have some kind of economic recovery. It's been a tough 10 years."
Although second-quarter figures aren't yet available, real estate experts watching the Petaluma market speculate office space vacancies are about half of what they were a few months ago.
Office vacancies in Petaluma hit a high of about 42 percent in 2009 and have been falling ever since, according to Keegan & Coppin, a Santa Rosa commercial real estate firm.
In early 2010, 33.8 percent of office space was vacant, which dropped to 27.2 percent by the first quarter of 2011. Those numbers compare to the average in Sonoma County of about 22 percent.
All the recent leasing activity should drive Petaluma's vacancy rate even lower in the second quarter.
"The pricing is so attractive that companies from Marin, primarily, are gobbling up properties," said Al Coppin, president of Keegan & Coppin. "In Marin, they'd be looking at three or four times the price, so it's a no-brainer."
Sonoma County's relatively cheap home and building prices made Petaluma an attractive site for high-tech startups in the late 1990s.
White's father, Bill, built Redwood Business Park in 1982. He attracted a number of telecom equipment developers that flourished, making White's business park the heart of Telecom Valley.
But then the tech balloon burst, the economy soured and real estate values plummeted. One by one, the headlines showed another company closing up shop and moving out of Petaluma.
In 2005, Basin Street sold much of its local portfolio to Equity Office Properties in a $263 million deal, one of the largest real estate transactions in the North Bay. Equity Office Properties since has turned over its collection of Redwood Business Park buildings to lenders.
Now, real estate prices are relative bargains again, spurring a flurry of activity.
Earlier this year, Basin Street bought back eight of its former office buildings. The price: $21 million, or 28 cents on the dollar compared to what the company sold them for six years ago, Matt White said.