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Wine, tourism and medical technology behind economic recovery


Wine, tourism and medical technology will drive Sonoma County's continuing economic rebound next year, with gains in employment and personal income, according to an economic forecast released Wednesday.

The Fall 2012 Local Economic Report forecasts a gain of 3,800 jobs and a 5.2 percent growth in personal income in 2013, with continued expansion through 2016.

"It's definitely upbeat and optimistic," said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, which issued the report.

The local economy has been gaining momentum for several years, Stone said, noting that the expected job growth for next year will exceed state and national averages.

"I think good times are coming," he said.

The forecasts, prepared by Moody's Analytics, show county employment rising to 177,200 jobs next year, up from 173,400 this year.

The annual unemployment rate next year will drop to 8.0 percent, down from 8.6 percent for 2012. In 2014, unemployment will drop to 7.1 percent, falling to 5.9 percent in 2015 and 5.4 percent in 2016, the report said.

Sonoma County unemployment was 5.8 percent in 2008, peaked at 10.4 percent in 2010 and has been declining since then.

The report pegged personal income growth at 3.8 percent this year, about the same as it was in 2010 and 2011.

Personal income is expected to grow by 5.2 percent next year and by more than 7 percent in 2014 and 2015. Income suffered a 7.1 percent drop in 2009 and has since grown every year.

An aging population and increased access to health care -- thanks to the Affordable Health Care Act -- bode well for the county's burgeoning medical technology industry, the report said.

Sales at Medtronic's Santa Rosa-based vascular unit rose 12 percent for the fiscal year that ended in April, it noted.

Wine and tourism, both hit hard by the recession, are now helping drive the recovery, Stone said.

Thanks to nearly perfect weather, Sonoma County's grape harvest was bountiful, curbing prices wineries pay for grapes, the report said. At the same time, prices paid for bottled wine are climbing.

"Market share and sales for wines priced above $10 a bottle -- Sonoma County's specialty -- are increasing as consumers begin to spend more on discretionary goods," it said. The trend should continue next year "if incomes and consumer confidence strengthen as expected."

Tourism is also contributing to the economic growth, the report said, noting a 3 percent increase in passenger traffic at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport through the first eight months of 2012.

Hotel occupancy rates also increased this year, reaching their highest level since 2005, the report said.

On the home-construction front, 388 permits were issued this year, down from 449 single-family home construction permits in 2011, according to the report.

But it forecast a 79 percent increase to 694 permits next year, followed by a surge to 1,534 permits in 2014 -- nearly matching the 1,598 issued in 2005 before the housing market collapsed.

Stone said the county's "ongoing challenge" is to create more jobs, noting that many local businesses laid people off during the lean years and have replaced some of those positions with technology.

But the report's overall positive forecast jibes with preliminary results of a December survey of business confidence, Stone said. The survey of 300 local CEOs indicated that many are planning to hire workers and purchase equipment.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.