Sonoma County’s diverse economy has shown its resilience over the past 17 years, rebounding from two severe economic downturns. One involved the bursting of the high-tech bubble in 2001, which grounded the dreams of many who hoped to make fortunes through ever-soaring stock options. And the other came six years later with the bursting of the housing bubble, which shattered the plans of many homeowners who similarly thought housing prices would never come down.
But the region is not only back to where it was before the Great Recession started 10 years ago, it’s seeing steady job growth, increasing property values and low unemployment, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development examining the history of the Sonoma County economy. The report shows the county economy is buoyed in particular by growth in agriculture, food production and tourism.
All of it is encouraging news. But the report leaves open the question of where the county is going to go from here. Where will the next generation of high-paying jobs come from that will allow more Sonoma County residents and families to afford the soaring cost of living — housing costs, in particular — in this region?
In 2000, the future job market appeared strong, rooted in the growth of manufacturing jobs, then the largest jobs sector in the county. At its peak in 2001, Sonoma County had 20,000 workers in manufacturing. Telecom Valley employed more than 12,000 workers alone. Many of these were engineers making more than $80,000 a year, twice the average income at the time. But that came crashing down in 2001 with the dotcom bust, which forced many companies to fold while others began shipping jobs overseas. As Staff Writer Robert Digitale reported, the county lost 6,000 jobs in two years.
Tech remains a key component of the local economy with Keysight Technologies, for example, employing 1,300 workers alone. Technology and manufacturing overall accounts for a $3 billion slice of the county’s nearly $30 billion economy.
Likewise, the health care sector has remained an economic anchor although it did not lose jobs at the rate of other areas following the economic collapse of 2007.
The county can expect to see continued growth in tourism-related businesses as well as those in the craft food and beverage manufacturing sector, which already has seen the addition of 10,000 jobs in the past seven years. But Sonoma County also continues to have a significant number of jobs in the retail area, spurred by the growth in the 1990s and 2000s of big box stores, which have provided significant tax benefits for cities but lack the higher-paying jobs needed to support the cost of living here.
The result is the region’s economy looks good on paper, but it has gaps. The median single-family home in Sonoma County is now close to $650,000 while rents have soared an average of 6.6 percent a year since 2010. Thus the question remains, where will the next generation of jobs come from that will support living in Sonoma County? That’s a question county leaders can’t afford to wait another 10 years to answer.