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Golis: Is Sonoma County ready for life after the pandemic?

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

You hear the stories every day — of people coming and going, buying and selling.

After more than a year of isolation, people are thinking about how they want to spend the rest of their lives. For some, it begins with recalibrating what is meaningful to them, and that might mean moving near their children or cashing out the equity in their homes. For others, it means figuring out how to pay the rent and still put food on the table.

Staff Writer Ethan Varian told the story the other day of the Vintners Resort and the struggles its managers face in finding sufficient employees to get their business up to speed.

Sonoma State University economist Robert Eyler posited likely explanations. Some workers may prefer unemployment benefits that may exceed what they’re paid as hospitality workers, he said. Some may fear contracting COVID-19. And some may have retired or moved on because they can’t afford to live here.

Pete Golis
Pete Golis

If Sonoma County was an expensive place to live when you had a paycheck — and it was — it’s easy to imagine people without a paycheck seeking a cheaper place to live.

Here’s the irony: Some people are changing their lives because they have options, and some people are changing their lives because they don’t.

To gauge what the economy will be like on other side of the pandemic, it would be useful to better understand what is happening in local service industries. A chronic labor shortage would make it increasingly difficult to operate a business in Sonoma County. In a county with an aging population, no one should underestimate the obstacles associated with recruiting the next generation of workers.

“I’ve never seen it so hard,” Percy Brandon, the Vintners general manager, told Varian. “Now we have the opportunity to start doing business, but we’re unable to deliver full service because we don’t have the people to work.”

We know Sonoma County lost population after the 2017 fires, which isn’t surprising when you consider that 5,200 homes were lost in that terrible week.

And now comes the U.S. Census Bureau to report that California’s population growth trailed population growth in the other 49 states. For the first time, California will lose a congressional seat.

The notion of the great California exodus has lately become a story line. There’s been no shortage of hand-wringing about the state’s future. Is the California Dream dying?

It’s worth noting that it’s still California, the state with the fifth-largest economy on Earth. The state still grew by more than 2.3 million people in the past decade, and with almost 40 million people, it remains the most populous state.

For better and worse, surging home prices demonstrate that someone wants to live here.

More Californians, it is said, now want to move to Texas. Census data shows a net loss of 300,000 Californians to the Lone Star state over the last decade (700,000 Californians moved to Texas, 400,000 Texans moved to California.)

Note that many Californians and California businesses — including Tesla and Oracle — are moving to Austin, a city that won’t be confused with conservative Texas. Democratic President Joe Biden won Austin’s Travis County by a margin (71% to 26%) approaching what Biden won in Sonoma County. Austin, a mecca for music and food, has as its unofficial slogan: Keep Austin Weird.

The median price of a house in Austin last month was $500,000 — not California prices, but not the housing bargain some imagine.

With those caveats in mind, however, Californians should not be blind to the warning signs.

In a state with a prosperous future, it can’t be OK that the gap between rich and poor is growing wider.

It’s not acceptable that too many kids are failing in school, that 150,000 people are living in squalid homeless encampments or that living costs can be crippling for low- and moderate-income people. (CalMatters reported that most people leaving the state make less than $100,000 a year, and most people arriving in California make more than $100,000 a year.)

When businesses complain about high taxes and excessive regulation, Californians ought to pay attention.

And they ought to insist on initiatives to combat climate change. Prosperity can’t survive fire and drought, rising sea levels or damage to the state’s agricultural production (which happens to rank first among the 50 states).

When asked about evidence people were leaving California, former Gov. Jerry Brown argued that people would be mistaken to think climate change and other problems don’t happen in other states. “Where would they go?” he asked about people who say they want to leave.

Some have ready answers, of course. They want to live where they can afford a house or an apartment. They want to live where business is subject to less regulation and lower taxes — and where the politics is more like their own.

California has been living off its press clippings for a long time. Even a moderate climate, a bountiful landscape and wealthy cities won’t be enough if workers find reasons to go elsewhere.

With news of a $15 billion budget surplus, now would be a good time to return to the investments that made California great in the first place. The future will be decided by California’s willingness to invest in jobs, education and housing.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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