Can local economy keep rolling? Sonoma County business leaders offer 2019 predictions
For the past five years, the Sonoma County economy has been relatively humming along — even in the aftermath of the October 2017 wildfires.
The central question heading into 2019 is whether or not the good news continues given some troubling indicators across the North Bay. Businesses struggle in the tight labor market to find available workers. Too many residents can’t afford a home or even a place to rent. More bricks-and-mortar stores have closed as shoppers flock online. And tourism growth remains a challenge after the fires, as shown by the popular Shed Modern Grange foodie destination in Healdsburg planning to close Monday.
To gauge local sentiment, The Press Democrat asked five Sonoma County business leaders and analysts for their outlook for 2019. Their answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Robert Eyler, Sonoma State University economics professor
Q: What do see as the economic outlook for Sonoma County in 2019?
A: It is likely to be a year of transition for the Sonoma County economy as rebuilding continues. The national economy may be slowing down a bit, and the Bay Area may see more abrupt slowdowns if investors begin to pull back from companies that dominate the Bay Area economy. It would not be shocking to see some major employers in the core Bay Area begin to shed workers in 2019, but that may not trigger such a change to affect local industries like tourism and wine.
Also, 2019 may be a year where those that lost homes in the fire are challenged by reductions in insurance payouts and some decisions on movements into a rebuild or elsewhere locally, or leaving the area. Generally, Sonoma County is likely to follow the state economy closely, and the forecast is for positive, slower growth.
Q: Do you see any hope to make housing more affordable? And if not, what will be the ramifications?
A: We need to build more housing and affect the supply side of the equation. However, if there is excess demand to live here, prices may fall for a short time and then available supply will be consumed and prices will stabilize and rise again. The ramifications of not having more affordable housing markets is more commuting workers; higher wage levels; perhaps more conversion to technology and away from labor; some business failures; and also preservation of housing wealth for those that own.
Q: Are there any local industries especially vulnerable now in this economic climate?
A: I think the most vulnerable is retail due to rising labor costs, tight labor markets, and global competition that has come home to one’s phone versus local merchants. Local retail is likely to be very challenged over the next few years. The key challenge there is remaining different and relevant to the local market served: why would a local resident shop here versus Amazon? Retail tied more directly to visitors versus local residents may delay some of that pressure.
Tyler Smith, owner and brewer at Cooperage Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa
Q: What’s the outlook for the local craft beer sector in 2019?
A: It is a great time to be a beer consumer. There is an abundance of breweries in the Bay Area with many more in the planning or beginning stages. Many established breweries are expanding production, which helps to lift issues with accessibility in the market. Restaurants, bars and tap rooms have really embraced the local beer scene, making it easier for small producers to secure a tap handle and for consumers to find a great local pint.