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In a bid to reverse the loss of nearly 22,000 jobs during the Great Recession, local business and government leaders have launched an unprecedented effort to attract and retain employers in Sonoma County.

Key among the efforts is Sonoma County BEST, a $3.25 million public-private program that seeks to generate 4,100 jobs during the next five years.

County supervisors have agreed to give BEST, which was conceived by the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, a total of $300,000 over three years. Supervisors also have approved an additional $600,000 for new county business advancement efforts over the next 12 months.

BEST — which stands for Building Economic Success Together — last fall hired its executive director, Carolyn Stark, who was involved in similar job creation programs in Austin, Texas and near Palm Springs.

Early steps by BEST and the county's Economic Development Board include interviewing scores of local business leaders about roadblocks and opportunities for growth. The county also has helped form a committee examining ways to make permitting and regulatory processes easier at both the county and its cities.

Leaders say the recession was too steep for the county to bounce back from without a concerted effort to bring in new companies and help existing ones to grow.

"We can't just sit back and read the paper and say, &amp;&lsquo;Good, the economy's improving,'" said Anthy O'Brien<NO1><NO>, president/CEO at Top Speed Data in Petaluma.

O'Brien is on committees for BEST, the county Economic Development Board and the Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce, which for the past year has been working with a new economic development manager for the city of Petaluma. Those interconnected efforts matter, she said, because "the information could, can and should be shared."

However, the lessons from other communities is that meaningful results take time.

"It's like a 20-year effort," said Blair Kellison, CEO of herbal tea maker Traditional Medicinals in Sebastopol and a BEST board member.

Sustaining the effort may be BEST's biggest challenge, he said, but doing so will matter for the long-term economic health of the county.

"There's just so much potential up here but we've got to work at it," Kellison said.

Business and government leaders have long touted the county as a desirable place to live. But those involved with BEST said both county and regional economic development programs haven't included a coordinated effort by the public and private sectors to attract and retain companies.

Part of the impetus for BEST came from a few managers at Agilent Technologies, who had witnessed the hardships of colleagues when 6,000 jobs were eliminated at Agilent and other local tech companies at the beginning of the last decade. Many laid-off workers left the county for lack of employment opportunities.

"I watched a lot of people go away," said Kevin Smith, an Agilent manager responsible for customer satisfaction in North and South America.

About six years ago Smith and a few colleagues reached out to the Santa Rosa Chamber on the need to attract more high-skilled jobs to the county. The chamber eventually founded an economic vitality committee, a precursor to BEST.

Then came the recession. Unemployment jumped and housing prices plummeted. County employment fell from 196,200 in 2007 to 174,300 in 2010.

This spring a Chapman University professor reported that Sonoma County was the 10th worst place in the U.S. for job growth since 2000. While county officials point to mitigating factors such as uncounted self-employed entrepreneurs, the numbers were "a wake-up call," Sonoma State University economist Robert Eyler said at the time.

When business leaders began to look around for examples of effective job retention and attraction programs, they found nearly all of them were located out of state — and none were in Northern California.

Instead, they cite places like Austin, Texas, which ranked as the fifth-best place for job growth in the recent study, as well as Nashville, Tenn., and Richmond, Va.

With the money the supervisors provided, the Economic Development Board recently hired three new staff members to assist businesses with regulations and permits, to work on keeping existing businesses in the county and to help advance business through sectors, or "clusters" of like companies. As well, an ombudsman has been hired at the county Permit and Resource Management Development Department to help businesses and the public navigate regulations that guide planning and building.

The aim, said county Economic Development Board Director Ben Stone, is a coordinated effort "to help build demand for our products and services."

Still to come is a renewed attempt to better prepare high school students for the workforce — an issue that has been under discussion for at least the past two decades.

"For the first time in this county's history, you're going to see investment from the County of Sonoma on developing workforce education programs," said county Supervisor Mike McGuire.

The effort, he said, hopefully will include local high schools, the Sonoma County Office of Education, Santa Rosa Junior College, Sonoma State University and business leaders from such key growth sectors as agriculture, hospitality, health care, senior care and light manufacturing.

BEST leaders, meanwhile, are interviewing executives from 100 companies in 100 days. They characterized it as a chance to learn about the needs of those businesses, but also to hear about those outside suppliers and other companies that might be worth contacting about relocating here. As well, the leaders might know businesses looking to move into the region — and who might be persuaded to consider Sonoma County.

"These CEOs know other CEOs," Stark said.

Stark has already reached out to Lucasfilm, which recently abandoned plans for a major expansion in Marin County. She said it's doubtful the company will expand anywhere in California.

But she expressed confidence that BEST will meet its five-year jobs target.

The aim is to generate 2,500 jobs, and those workers and their spending will prompt companies to add 1,600 more positions. However, Stark said BEST will include in the counts any jobs of companies that look to leave the county but ultimately decide to stay put.

She predicted the involvement of business executives will add a new dimension when seeking to attract companies.

"It's business people that are really influenced by other business people," Stark said.

The efforts have skeptics. Jack Atkin, president of the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association, said the goals are worthwhile but the county won't attract many companies unless supervisors provide key services while addressing unsustainable pension costs.

"If roads are crumbling and parks are closed and taxes are rising ... all that you spend on economic development is probably going to be wasted," Atkin said.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo said Atkin is right about the tasks before the county. But he maintained the supervisors also should work to "improve the climate for jobs and businesses."

"We need a strong economy and tax base in order to do what we need to do," Carrillo said.

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