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, &‘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.