Swindell: The times they are a-changin’ even more so in the Sonoma County economy as pandemic wanes

Workers and employers grapple with a new world as the effects of COVID-19 decrease.|

When Executive Editor Richard Green recently asked me to take over the business columnist role at The Press Democrat, I was honored.

But then came the anxious step that so many writers confront: What the heck do I write about for my introductory column?

Luckily for me, the experience primarily serving as the wine business reporter at The Press Democrat for almost eight years provided a natural opening. Through the decades at this newspaper, the beat has been primarily focused on the multibillion-dollar industry that plays an essential role in the Sonoma County economy.

And within that time, I, too, have chronicled the North Coast wine industry with issues ranging from labor shortages to wildfire risk to how to capture younger consumers who have a wider array of choices far different from their baby boomer parents.

But tastes change over the years and so did my topics. And my coverage area has reflected that and expanded to cover beer, cider, spirits and now cannabis, whose value per acre is much more valuable than the wine grape crop that represented 53% of all agricultural dollar output in 2020.

Even in the drink sector, Sonoma County has producers of tea, kombucha and other fermented drinks that offer an array of options beyond the Burgundian varietals Sonoma County is known for across the world.

And thus, I soon realized what I was really covering were significant shifts in the local economy. Those changes are now happening at a quickening pace as we steadily emerge out of the pandemic.

There will be remote workers and those who will have a hybrid schedule coming into the office. And there are still fewer of them working in Sonoma County than before the pandemic with employers having to make do with fewer staff, especially in the leisure and hospitality industry.

I look to write more about such changes in future columns with a much wider lens. The effects are wide-ranging, such as the future of downtown development in Santa Rosa with the promise of a revitalized, bustling commercial district still unfulfilled even five years after a reunified Old Courthouse Square.

Fewer workers downtown will not help. But just 2 miles away, shoppers still turn out at Montgomery Village with its mix of varied shops, which is the same case for the strong foot traffic at The Barlow in Sebastopol. Even in the age of Amazon, some local retailers have found a way to compete against the behemoth from Seattle.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, workers also are demanding more from employers — even here in one of the most progressive parts of the United States. That has occurred with workers trying to unionize at Amy’s Kitchen in Petaluma and further efforts to protect local agricultural workers. This will only increase as we see organizing at Starbucks locations across the country.

There also are areas and workers within the region that still have been left behind economically even with the prosperous tech boom within the Bay Area, which has allowed some to come up to Sonoma County and not even think twice about affording to buy in a county where the median sales price for single-family homes last year hit $769,000. It’s a figure that leaves many workers out of reach of purchasing a home here.

And more workers are not waiting around to see if things will change, which poses a big threat to the local economy.

About 10% of the workforce at HenHouse Brewing Co. moved out of the state during the pandemic because of the high cost of living here, said Collin McDonnell, the CEO of the Santa Rosa-based brewery that provides 100% of the health care coverage for its full-time workers along with a 401(k) plan.

“We are very sensitive to that because we want to take care of our employees,” McDonnell told me last month.

Still, some are trying to take action. For instance, look at Lake County with a higher unemployment rate than the state and the nation in March. Business leaders have recently tried to market the county as a cannabis hub outside of the NIMBY-ism of other areas that has stymied the emerging industry’s growth, with a pitch of a lower cost of doing business.

Overall, the one realization that I do have is that the only constant thing in life is change. And that certainly applies to the local economy.

Sonoma County itself years ago was the home to a sizable apple crop of more than 15,000 acres, and before that, hops were the “King of Crops.” We see that again in local agriculture where Petaluma — once known as the “egg basket of the world” — is now home to some local businesses that are marketing Sonoma County as a hub for plant-based food production and consumption. That effort is picking up more steam with the heralded opening of Little Saint in Healdsburg and its 100% plant-based menu.

There will be new businesses and industries that will emerge in the future that are not even on our radar, similar to TikTok, Zoom and Blue Apron, which weren’t household names more than a decade ago.

Ben Stone, the longtime executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board who retired in 2019, noted when his agency helped create a single tourism agency 25 years ago, now known as Sonoma County Tourism, his staff knew there was opportunity given “the amount of people coming up here with money.”

Tourism has blossomed into a major driver of Sonoma County’s economy with around $2 billion in overall visitor spending on an annual basis.

But it also spawned new categories that Stone said he could not imagine at the time — becoming a key wedding destination, which pumps in an estimated $200 million into the economy, for instance. That also has created opportunities for a range of professions — from event planners to bakers, florists, photographers, musicians and DJs — who can make a full-time living as part of the “experience economy” that Sonoma County has marketed well.

“Now all these people can have careers with this,” Stone told me.

I look forward to telling these stories of change. And, please, feel free to contact me and tell me of the notable developments you are witnessing.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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