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Sonoma County unemployment drops to seven-year low in March

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Unemployment in Sonoma County tumbled to a seven-year low in March, driven in large part by growth in the tourism industry, the state reported Friday.

The jobless rate fell to 4.6 percent in March, the lowest since December 2007 and down from a revised 4.9 percent in February, the state Employment Development Department reported. A year ago, it stood at 6.3 percent.

While job creation has slowed since last fall, local employers have added 4,600 jobs over the past year, pushing employment up to 199,500 in March. There were 11,800 unemployed people actively looking for work, the smallest number since December 2007.

The largest increases in hiring over the past year have been in the hospitality sector and in the professional and business services sector, both of which added 1,200 jobs.

“Tourism has certainly shown an improvement,” said Gary Hartwick, president and CEO of Exchange Bank, which saw growth in deposits and loans in the first quarter as the local economy swells.

“We have seen employment continuing to improve,” Hartwick said. “Companies are now investing in their employees.”

The wine industry is also expanding following a record $1.46 billion grape harvest last fall on the North Coast. Roughly one-quarter of the jobs in Sonoma County are attributed to the wine industry and related businesses, including tourism, according to an economic study funded by vintners.

That sector has been complemented by a booming craft beer industry and burgeoning cidermakers and distillers, all of which are turning the county into a must-visit tourist mecca. In fact, the transient occupancy taxes in the county are up 24 percent this year, said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

Only five counties in California had lower unemployment rates in March. Four are located in the Bay Area: San Mateo, at 3.4 percent; Marin, 3.5 percent; San Francisco, 3.6 percent; Santa Clara, 4.1 percent; and Orange, 4.4 percent.

Statewide, the jobless rate dropped to 6.5 percent in March. The U.S. unemployment rate was unchanged at 5.5 percent.

The strength of the Bay Area economy has fueled tourism in Sonoma County, Stone noted, as affluent tech workers from San Francisco and Silicon Valley come to the county for vacations and weekend visits, spending more money in the process.

“It’s a general reflection of the general economic conditions in California,” Stone said.

Unemployment fell across the North Coast. In Mendocino County, the jobless rate fell to 6.3 percent, down from 6.6 percent in February and 8.2 percent a year ago.

In Lake County, unemployment fell to 7.8 percent, down from 8.3 percent in February and 10.3 percent in March.

In Napa County, unemployment fell to 4.6 percent, down from 5.0 percent in February and 6.4 percent a year ago.

One significant factor in the strength of the economy is how sectors that were especially affected by the 2008 financial crisis have rebounded. For instance, the construction industry has gained 400 jobs in Sonoma County in the past year, while the financial services sector has added 200 jobs. Schools have added 300 jobs since March 2014.

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

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