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As it turns 50, Rohnert Park still outwardly resembles the vision that led to its creation in 1962: A tightly planned suburb of look-alike neighborhoods, each with its own school and small-town amenities of parks, pools and convenient shopping centers.

"What hasn't changed is the city structure that we put together, the governmental structure and the neighborhood services," said Vern Smith, a member of the first City Council and the city's second mayor.

Change is under way in the form of major development projects on the city's south, east and west edges.

"We are kind of evolving into the second phase of cityhood," said Councilwoman Gina Belforte, a 27-year resident.

But clear strains of post-World War II social dreams still mark the rhythms of life in the city of nearly 41,000 people as it celebrates its half-century Saturday with a full day of activities.

"I love Rohnert Park. I graduated from Rancho Cotate High School 30 years ago, and I still have lot of classmates around town," Brenda Boddy said.

"I got to see them become adults and have children and, in some cases, unfortunately, go through grief. To experience life. To me that's small-town America. I hope that everybody could experience that," she said.

<b>Big changes coming</b>

Today, however, Sonoma County's third-largest city is in a state of flux more urban than suburban, with its future likely to turn on elements unimagined at its start.

Next to a rail line that will carry the SMART commuter train now in development, a 33-acre office park vacated last year by State Farm Insurance holds out the prospect of a true downtown, something Rohnert Park's founders, to the chagrin of many later residents, omitted.

Even Boddy, who moved to Rohnert Park in 1969 as a kindergartner, said: "I would love to know where most people think the hub of the city is. I don't know. I don't know that that's been defined. I think having that would certainly change the dynamic."

The combination of the planned SMART station, the empty office campus and, across the street, a handsome but under-used City Center Plaza, presents a ready and rare opportunity, say people who have studied the city.

"There's a lot of promise here and it needs to be turned into a focus of economic activity and social life," said Sonoma State University environmental sciences professor Steve Orlick.

He and a group of students in 2010 surveyed Rohnert Park to fashion a plan to guide its next 50 years.

Also, two starkly opposite developments on its borders — to the east, a sophisticated SSU performing arts center, the Green Music Center, and to the west a 64-acre Indian casino resort — will almost inevitably alter the city in ways not yet known.

"Probably the biggest thing that will happen in this decade of the 21st century is that Rohnert Park will become much better known as a destination city in the North Bay, and that will be a major change," said the city's current mayor, Jake Mackenzie, who first won election to the council in 1996.

"We're getting ready to meet that challenge. We're ready to go," he said.

<b>$1 billion project</b>

On the city's south end, Sonoma Mountain Village — a $1 billion energy-efficient mixed-use development on the former Hewlett-Packard factory site — represents another pivot point into the future. It could add a projected 4,400 residents to the city by 2022 and 825,000 square feet of commercial, retail and office space.

It also is a vote of confidence in the city by one of the county's most prominent companies.

"We've been headquartered here for going on 40 years, and we've made a lot if investments in Rohnert Park and they've turned out really well," said Brad Baker, CEO and president of Codding Enterprises.

"We think that with things like the university growing, the Green Music Center, the new casino, there's going to be a lot of promise in the future for Rohnert Park," he said.

<b>Bland, vanilla image</b>

The city's originating vision still endows it with a wearisome vanilla image, some residents say.

"I remember a friend of mine on the faculty found out I lived in Rohnert Park and she said, 'Oh, my God, you live in Rohnert Park, the place where white met bread?' " said Rick Luttman, a SSU mathematics professor who moved to Rohnert Park in 1984.

"It is kind of bland," Luttmann allowed, but, "at the same time, that's part of what makes it a pleasant place to live."

City officials say the music center, which opens this month, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria's casino resort, which is due to open next year, and the Codding project will together cast a new light on a place sometimes derided as simply a collection of commuters, big-box stores and fast-food joints.

"To have those three major things happening, nowhere else is it happening in Sonoma County," Belforte said. "It kind of separates us. Maybe we're not going to be the little kid on the block anymore."

(You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.)

More information: <a href="http://www.rohnertpark50.org">www.rohnertpark50.org</a>