Fires deliver economic blow to Sonoma County businesses, workers
Two days after the Tubbs fire incinerated his Fountaingrove home, La Tortilla Factory CEO Jeff Ahlers returned to work and oversaw efforts to put the 40-year-old Santa Rosa food manufacturer back in operation.
With electricity restored but natural gas service still interrupted at the plant off Airport Boulevard, Ahlers and a small team Wednesday began contacting the company’s employees. They wanted to learn who lost their homes, who had been forced out by evacuations and who remained busy helping other relatives cope with disaster.
The team also sought to assure employees eager to get back to work and earn a paycheck.
Willie Tamayo, who also lost his home in the fire and is a member of the family that owns La Tortilla Factory, suggested the push to reopen was much more important that merely keeping its tortillas on supermarket shelves. The company employs 300 workers, Tamayo said, “and they’re all counting on us.”
Last week’s raging fires not only stole lives and ravaged neighborhoods in Santa Rosa and the surrounding region. The flames also punched the city’s business community in the gut.
The Tubbs fire destroyed two hotels, a winery, a department store and at least a half-dozen restaurants. Moreover, the threat of further damage upended the operations of both large and small employers — closing hospitals, schools, shopping centers, tech companies, food producers and many other businesses.
The disruption didn’t cost only business owners or their investors. It also affected thousands of workers, some of whom won’t be fully repaid for their days off the job. The property losses and the blow to the local economy have yet to be tallied. But analysts said the scale will be historic, something along the lines of the 1906 earthquake, which leveled much of a Santa Rosa downtown that had served a small farming community.
“It definitely is unprecedented for the county,” said Sonoma State University economist Robert Eyler. Such a combined impact to residents and businesses “has not been seen in at least two or three generations.”
And while the fire’s first impact was to temporarily shut down business, the aftermath may include “some labor market shakeup” as employees quit jobs to leave the area or take new positions with more pay or better working conditions.
The homes and apartments lost in an already tight housing market could make it harder for many residents to stay in the county.
“The bigger problem is really going to be for the workers,” Eyler said.
As of last week, a complete count had yet to be made of Santa Rosa businesses destroyed or damaged by fire — let alone the many others that had been scorched from Geyserville to the Sonoma Valley.
“I don’t think anybody yet knows the extent of it,” said Jonathan Coe, director of special projects at the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce.
A six-member chamber team met Wednesday to begin planning their outreach to area businesses, even as four of those present were dealing with current or possible evacuations affecting their own homes.
In Santa Rosa, the commercial properties destroyed included the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country, the Fountaingrove Inn, the Kmart department store and the neighborhood shopping center on Stagecoach Road in Fountaingrove that housed Sweet T’s restaurant. At least six more restaurants burned in or near the city.