Sonoma County economic development chief a driving force in 30 years of local business advances

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In the 1980s, a campus task force determined Sonoma State University lacked the ability to start its own engineering program.

Finally, in 2000 a master’s program in engineering began at the Rohnert Park campus, followed five years later with undergraduate courses. Starting the program required collecting $8 million in outside financial aid and persuading top California education officials that the SSU program wouldn’t hurt nearby state universities with their own engineering offerings.

Saeid Rahimi, a former dean of SSU’s School of Science and Technology, said the massive effort wouldn’t have succeeded without the help of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board and its longtime executive director, Ben Stone.

“Ben Stone was instrumental in all of this,” said Rahimi, who was part of the university’s team to develop the engineering program. Stone, he said, helped bring together a group of “ingenious people” from education, government and business who strongly believed an engineering program would benefit local students, workers and tech companies.

Today, the SSU program educates about 150 undergrads and 10 graduate students per year and remains a much-cited accomplishment of the county’s economic development board, a government agency known for its work with start-up businesses and entire industry sectors here. And Stone, its 67-year-old bespectacled leader, is for many the board’s public face.

“Ben and economic development, it’s almost the same word,” said Brett Martinez, president and CEO of Santa Rosa-based Redwood Credit Union. “You just don’t think about one without the other.”

“He gets things done,” Martinez said. “The man has a gift for bringing together diverse leaders from around the community to address common business problems. And when it comes to his staff, he “surrounds himself with some amazing talent.”

For more than 30 years, Stone has led the economic board, helping it transition from a one-man operation when he was hired to an agency of 12 staff members.

To business leaders, Stone and the board matter partly because they produce reports that compile key data about the county’s residents and business sectors.

The agency also has tackled several countywide challenges. Its efforts, starting in 1997, helped create a single tourism agency, now known as Sonoma County Tourism. In the fall, it helped form an employers’ housing council to lobby for and possibly help finance new workforce housing projects, at a time when the county’s lack of affordable houses and apartments has become a crisis.

Stone and staff also have been credited with looking for new business trends. Since 2013, they have studied and determined the economic spillover effects from Russian River Brewing Co.’s annual February two-week release of popular craft beer Pliny the Younger Triple IPA — total $3.3 million this year. And this spring they reported that the county’s outdoor recreation industry brings in $731 million a year.

“We value people like Ben Stone because he’s always been so omniscient,” said Al Coppin, president of Santa Rosa brokerage Keegan & Coppin/Oncor International.

The economic development board has long provided commercial real estate brokerages with key data to help potential clients assess the county’s business opportunities, he said.

“You couldn’t ask for a better economic development guy,” Coppin said of Stone, calling him an excellent communicator and a consummate gentleman.

Stone came to Sonoma County in 1986 as the sole employee of the economic development board. Today, he is the longest-serving county department head, said James Gore, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors.

“At this point, the economic development board is synonymous with Ben Stone,” Gore said.

The board is known for sponsoring annual breakfast events featuring outside economists to speak about the county’s financial outlook. Those experts include Christopher Thornberg, founder of Beacon Economics, and Steven Cochrane of Moody’s Analytics.

As for Stone, he is a frequent voice on all matters of Sonoma County business. Since 1994, his name has appeared in The Press Democrat at least 679 times, an average of about 28 times a year.

A native of Seattle, Stone was a young man living in Spokane, Washington, in the early 1970s when the Puget Sound area suffered through double-digit unemployment, prompted in part by tough times for major aircraft maker Boeing. The pain was summed up in a billboard: “Will the last person leaving Seattle — Turn out the lights.”

Stone recalled thinking, “That shouldn’t happen. How can you prevent that from happening?” The question led him to consider economic development as a way of helping build stronger communities.

He graduated from Whitman College with a bachelor’s degree in history and a focus on economic history. After an internship in the King County executive office — watching wide-eyed the interactions with major employers Nordstrom and Boeing — Stone did consulting work for the former Arthur Andersen accounting firm.

When Stone arrived in Santa Rosa, the economic development board already had been around since the late 1950s, mostly tasked with attracting businesses to the county.

Stone credited then-supervisor Nick Esposti with influencing a new direction. The board would leave business attraction to the commercial real estate brokerages. Instead, it would gather key economic and demographic data, which the brokerages and others could use to inform businesses looking to build or expand here. And it would offer new services to “help the little guy,” the entrepreneurs trying to start or expand small businesses.

Early efforts to assist small businesses included recruiting retired business executives and Sonoma State and Santa Rosa Junior College educators to offer free business counseling to entrepreneurs. That eventually led to the creation of a regional small business development center, now overseen through Napa Valley College and with a Santa Rosa satellite housed in the economic development board’s offices.

The small business assistance continues to this day, including financing start-ups that don’t meet all the criteria needed to obtain a traditional business loan. Among such local businesses is the restaurant Taqueria Molcajetes on West College Avenue in Santa Rosa.

When co-owners Dionicia Valdovinos and Zacarias Martin needed $40,000 in 2015 for a down payment to acquire the building’s previous restaurant, the economic development board helped provide a micro loan for that amount. The board to date has provided 70 such loans for a total of $1.7 million — assisted by eight North Bay financial institutions and the San Francisco nonprofit Working Solutions. The repayment rate on those loans is 97 percent.

“They definitely helped us out in a big way,” said Ricardo Bailon, one of the restaurant’s managers and Valdvinos’ son.

Taqueria Molcajetes, which serves such favorites as molcajete and enchiladas Michoancanas, has grown to employ about 30 workers. The owners are seeking a second location and their restaurant this fall was the site of filming for a future episode of Guy Fieri’s television program “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

The restaurant benefited from the board’s micro lending program and another effort to aid Latino and other minority entrepreneurs. Both programs were developed after the recession a decade ago when county supervisors greatly increased the economic board’s staff. That staff increase, led by then-supervisors Mike McGuire, now a state senator, and Efren Carrillo, sought to ensure the county would have the means to encourage business expansion during future economic downturns.

The supervisors got credit for providing the extra money, and Stone received praise for the additional staff he hired, most of them coming from the world of business.

“He’s bringing in really bright people,” said Peter Rumble, CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce. He said Stone nurtures such talent and gives his staff “opportunities to shine.”

Over the decades, Stone also has run an internship program, offering college students a chance to run the county’s Restaurant Week marketing program and to help write studies on different economic trends.

“He brings these young people from these top colleges around the world, which is amazing,” said Pam Chanter, the chairwoman of the 10 volunteers who direct the economic development board and who are each appointed by a county supervisor.

Chanter, vice president of Vantreo Insurance in Santa Rosa, said interns have come from England, Nepal, Singapore and Switzerland. They also have been hired locally, including former supervisor Carrillo and Santa Rosa City Councilman Jack Tibbetts.

Those who know Stone emphasized he shouldn’t get all the credit for tackling various challenges in the business community. Solutions or improvements typically involve a wide array of groups and community leaders.

But Stone is seen as a catalyst who helps gather leaders together with an aim to find solutions to problems hindering local business. At times, those who collaborate with him find themselves surprised by what comes of their efforts.

Dan Benedetti, former CEO of Clover Sonoma, said in the 1980s Stone helped convene more than two dozen food and farm leaders to consider a joint marketing program for the county’s agriculture products. Leading the committee were Benedetti and the late Saralee McClelland Kunde, who had deep ties to the county’s dairy and wine industries.

The first meeting, Benedetti said, featured an “undersized room and oversized egos.”

In recent decades, Sonoma County has developed a reputation for not only fine wine but also a variety of natural and organic products, including craft beer, cheese, dairy, apples and hard cider. Benedetti said the committee’s efforts “set the table” for what was to come and amounted to “a huge awakening” about the potential of local agriculture.

“We didn’t even realize what we had,” he recalled. “We didn’t know who we were. And Ben brought us together.”

Benedetti said he becme friends with Stone, who he said has a disarming nature that intrigued people.

“He had a sublimely wicked sense of humor,” Benedetti said. Stone was a rare individual who could bring together people from business and government, and over the years he proved himself “a man for all” county supervisors.

“He could work with the best of them and he could work with some of the characters.” Benedetti said.

In its most recent strategic plan, the economic board and business leaders agreed to focus on ways to increase housing construction here. But they also explored ways the county might better attract and retain younger workers.

“Part of economic development is to look ahead to the jobs needed 10 years from now,” Stone said.

About 400 county residents turn 65 each month, he said. At that rate, in a decade a third of today’s workforce could be retired.

For now, Stone, a fire survivor who lost his own home in the Coffey Park neighborhood, doesn’t seem interested in joining that exodus and bringing his career to a close. But he insisted his eventual departure wouldn’t affect the economic development board because “we have a strong team” that will keep the work moving forward.

His admirers suggested those who succeed him would do well to adopt his approach.

Said Chanter of Vantreo Insurance: “He’s bringing people together for the betterment of the community.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or On Twitter @rdigit.

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