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Local economist Robert Eyler told a Rohnert Park crowd on Friday that the Sonoma County economy is unlikely to experience any lasting damage from the October fires.

“We have to make (the fires) more of a memory than an on-the-spot issue, recognizing that it is not as big of an impact on the overall economy,” said Eyler, director of the Center for Regional Economic Analysis at Sonoma State University.

This certainly was an encouraging message, one that was received warmly by those gathered for SSU’s annual Economic Outlook Conference at the DoubleTree Hotel in Rohnert Park.

His findings dovetail with a recently completed study prepared for Sonoma County by Beacon Economics in Southern California. The study concluded that “natural disasters appear to have a limited impact on the county economy in the short run, with presumably limited or no negative impacts on its long-run health.”

Eyler noted that in a worst-case scenario, if the owners of all 5,300 homes lost in the fires left the area and their homes were never rebuilt, this region would stand to lose roughly 5,600 jobs and an estimated $750 million in annual consumer spending. That’s significant, but from a numbers perspective, that amounts to just a fraction of the county’s $24 billion economy, he said.

We won’t quibble with the experts, particularly when it comes to economic projections. But as was demonstrated in how the residents of this region responded to the fires of early October, this county has shown it is greater than the sum of its parts. We also fear, however, that it risks being lesser than the sum of its losses unless real progress is made quickly.

The loss of residents has a ripple effect both in terms of diminished spending as well as diminished quality of life for those who are left behind. This is especially true when those who leave are doctors, dentists, teachers and others on whom we depend individually and as a community.

These are the hidden costs of catastrophic events such as this, costs that may not always show up in an economic analysis. The loss of every resident, every property and every business should be seen as a setback for the community as a whole. And for every lot that remains empty and every job that remains unfilled, the county is left with a reminder that work is still needed.

In other words, the county can ill afford to interpret these reports as an opportunity to rest on its laurels or be selective about how it proceeds. Help is needed. Building is needed. And most of all, progress is needed. We all still need to move forward with a sense of urgency.

With that in mind, some political leaders are moving forward with a plan to encourage Sonoma County voters to address a local housing crisis that has only grown worse since the fires. The idea is to invest and accelerate local housing construction by approving a housing recovery bond of $300 million or more to address the need for affordable housing.

The success of the bond “will say a lot about who we are as a community,” said Santa Rosa City Councilman Jack Tibbetts. We don’t disagree. We will address this housing bond more if and when it gets closer to becoming a reality. But it does strike us that this county, in addition to taking action to rebuild, will need to take risks — to invest in itself.

The greatest risk may be believing that there are none. We don’t believe it.

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