The bottom just dropped a little lower for Sonoma County's battered construction industry, now in its fifth year of a historic slump.
Though some in the industry see faint signs of a turnaround, construction activity tumbled to $97 million in Sonoma County during the first half of 2012, down 30 percent from the same period a year earlier, according to new data released by the California Homebuilding Foundation.
"No one in their wildest nightmares ever envisioned that this downturn in the economy and construction would last this long," said Keith Woods, chief executive officer at North Coast Builders Exchange, a Santa Rosa trade group.
The slump has wiped out thousands of jobs and slowed the region's rebound from the recession.
In the first half of 2007, construction activity totaled $315 million. Since then home builders have posted their worst years in more than four decades, and commercial construction has slowed, too.
Nearly two in five local construction workers have lost their jobs over the last six years. In August, there were 9,600 construction workers in Sonoma County, down from 15,600 in 2006, the state Employment Development Department reported.
There are fewer construction companies, too. The local builders exchange has lost nearly a third of its members over the past five years. Today, about 1,200 builders belong to the Santa Rosa trade group, a loss of about 500 members over the past five years, Woods said.
Others in the industry insisted the new permit data doesn't tell the whole story. Home builders maintained there has been healthy demand this year to buy the limited number of new houses available at their developments. And a major retail complex is under construction in Petaluma, featuring a massive 378,000 square feet of space anchored by Target.
Local construction companies are slowly starting to hire workers. The sector has now added jobs for six straight months, compared to a year earlier, its longest streak of uninterrupted growth since 2006, according to EDD figures. It marks a stark turnaround for an industry that had shed jobs in 57 of the previous 58 months.
Even so, most conceded the construction industry is still facing strong head winds.
On the commercial side, the county still has 3 million square feet of empty offices, amounting to a vacancy rate in excess of 22 percent, according to Keegan & Coppin, the North Bay's largest commercial real estate company.
And for residential construction, builders still can't buy vacant land and build houses for the price that similar existing homes are selling for in the county. Prices remain held down partly by the historically large number of homes at risk of foreclosure.
"We're not out of the woods yet, by any stretch of the imagination," said Bob Glover, executive officer of the Building Industry Association of the Bay Area, a trade group.
For the county, residential construction activity in the first six months declined to $60 million, a 31 percent decline from a year earlier, according to the California Homebuilding Foundation. Commercial activity slid to nearly $37 million, a 29 percent drop.
The foundation, a Sacramento nonprofit founded by the California Building Industry Association, began collecting the data last spring after the closure of the Construction Industry Research Board, which previously tracked permits. As a result, there may be some differences in the year-to-year comparisons.