Sonoma County's economy passing up much of nation

Sonoma County's economy is growing while the rest of the nation is just plodding along, an economic expert said Friday.

Job growth in Sonoma County is outpacing the rest of the United States, said Jerry Nickelsburg, senior economist at UCLA Anderson School of Management. For the 12-month period ending in November, employment grew 2.1 percent in Sonoma County, compared to around 1.6 percent nationwide, he said.

And the U.S. is muddling through with 1 to 3 percent growth in GDP, he said. The predicted 3 percent growth rate in national GDP is not exactly stellar, Nickelsburg said.

"That progress is good, but it's not so good that we want to put our party hats on yet," he said. "The good news in the U.S. economy is very geographically dependent, so you can feel quite fortunate to be here in Sonoma."

Nickelsburg addressed several hundred business and policy leaders from Sonoma County at the 2013 State of the County forum in Rohnert Park.

The county's success is due in part to its ability to adapt to a changing world, where skilled laborers are being replaced by machines and technical skills are becoming paramount, he said.

"You all have been much more nimble in making this transformation," Nickelsburg said. "You're becoming a much more entrepreneurial county."

The Sonoma County Economic Development Board successfully lured several companies to locate within the county last year. Together, those new companies created about 70 new jobs, said Ben Stone, executive director of the Economic Development Board.

"The fact that we've become part of the knowledge economy gives us buoyancy going forward," Stone said. "We've become part of that innovation economy."

Among the new companies are Petaluma-based World Centric, which sells compostable containers and products, and Santa Rosa-based Applied Chemical Laboratories, which relocated from Silicon Valley and makes epoxies and sealers.

The City of Petaluma and Sonoma County BEST also were a part of bringing World Centric to the county.

Executives at Applied Chemical had been concerned that it would take a long time to get county approval and permits, but the Economic Development Board helped speed the process, Stone said.

"If we can remove the obstacles and facilitate a smooth entry, that's good," Stone said.

Stone also said that Sonoma County ranks higher than comparable counties in creating an innovative environment. Business costs in Sonoma County are 7 percent lower than the national average, he said.

The Economic Development Board also showed a video highlighting the strides Sonoma County made in the past year. It featured shots of the Graton Resort - Casino adjacent to Rohnert Park, the Barlow in Sebastopol, where tasting rooms and artisnal shops are opening, and the abundant microbreweries and vineyards.

"Sonoma County didn't just survive this recession," Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire. "We're coming out stronger, more nimble ... and ready to innovate and grow our local economy."

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