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