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Read all of the PD's fire stories here

Sonoma County’s economy is projected to see stable growth this year even with the massive recovery in store from October’s fires, with a long-term outlook tied closely to how well the region rebounds, according to UCLA economist Jerry Nickelsburg, director of the university’s Anderson Forecast.

Nickelsburg, a Santa Rosa native, shared his projection Friday morning at the annual State of the County event, pointing to a mix of economic indicators, including record low unemployment levels, recent wage gains and rising housing costs as driving the projected growth of roughly 3 percent for the region, largely in line with the state.

Opportunities exist to turn the calamity of October’s wildfires into perennial returns, he said, but that comes with two big uncertainties: recruiting a sufficient stock of construction workers from outside the area and securing the materials needed to rebuild.

“Part of that challenge is a constrained labor force and obtaining resources to actually make this happen,” said Nickelsburg. “The policy challenge … is how do you translate that resiliency that exists here in Sonoma into not just continued solid economic growth, but also recovery and creating that bright future.”

Ongoing tumult in Washington, D.C., poses risks, he said. Also, rising interest rates will dampen the sale of homes and automobiles, he said. But on the whole, California should be relatively immune to potential slowdowns, with established and burgeoning industries to rely on, including the emergent recreational marijuana trade and related tourism, Nickelsburg noted to laughter.

Nearly 500 attendees from public, private and nonprofit sectors attended the breakfast at the DoubleTree Hotel ballroom in Rohnert Park. County Supervisor James Gore, who addressed the crowd as the board chairman, said collaboration and innovation will be the keys for ensuring success.

“Those who are in this room and in this community, it’s all we’ve got,” Gore said. “And we got this. We are the ones who have to confront here in Sonoma County and throughout our state and nation — everywhere — generational (stuff) like we haven’t seen in a long time.”

In Sonoma County, the fires burned 137 square miles, destroyed 5,130 homes and killed 24 people, amounting to the worst local natural disaster in memory.

“Before these fires, our need was collective impact,” Gore said. “And that is not ‘Kumbaya, let’s get together and have more talks, make more combined plans.’ That is an economic imperative of aligning resources, having similar agenda and having projected aim. That was a need on Oct. 8. It is an imperative now.”

By some measures, the recovery is showing significant progress. This past Monday, government contractors cleared the final scorched lot within Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood, where more than 1,300 homes were destroyed.

The first new home is rising on one of those scraped lots, its framed exterior conspicuous from blocks away in the leveled neighborhood. Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey called it a “visual inspiration,” and the news drew applause from the audience.

“I’m encouraged to say that rebuilding is happening in Santa Rosa,” he said during his remarks. “This is just a small start to what’s a monumental effort. We need to work together to build for the future.

“We don’t want to get five years down the road — 2022, 2023 — and celebrate that we are back to 2017,” he said. “We need to move forward.”

Coursey said Santa Rosa and the county are looking at the city’s downtown corridor as an area to accomplish multiple goals, including mixed-use, mixed-income housing and mass transit upgrades. The plan envisions such projects creating local jobs and stimulating the economy across the region.

Other initiatives to spur business in the wake of the fire include a campaign this past December to promote local shopping, as well as Sonoma County Restaurant Week, expanded this year by three days to run from March 2 to 11, said Ben Stone, head of the county’s Economic Development Board, which hosts the State of the County.

Stone is set to present a short-term recovery strategy to the Board of Supervisors on Feb. 13, from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Those recommendations will be baked into the county’s economic analysis on the effect of the fires and overall recovery plan scheduled for release on May 10.

This fall, Sonoma County will host the California Economic Summit, a marquee opportunity, Gore said, to showcase the North Bay’s commitment to help solve regional problems and strengthen the economy.

“It’s time to get things done,” he said. The “fires show us that jurisdiction doesn’t matter, that four to five counties can be impacted in one fell swoop, but also our issues of housing, workforce, natural resources — especially water — have no interest in where we draw our lines.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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