Optimistic outlook in fires’ wake tempered by blow to regional economy

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

The fires that raged through Sonoma Valley seemingly without end in October, destroying more than 400 homes, were stopped short of the Arnold Drive property in Glen Ellen where Marshall’s Body Shop has stood for decades.

Yet as the inferno dragged on — and along with it a mandatory evacuation for much of Glen Ellen — shop owner Cliff Casolla and his crew were out of work for more than 2½ weeks.

“That hurt me, and it hurt my guys,” said Casolla. “Plus, the paint we use in this line of work needs to be in a climate-controlled environment, so everything we had went south.”

Casolla, a former San Francisco police officer, was 29 when he bought the shop three years ago from a friend who had owned it since 2000. Before that, it was Bob Marshall, the eponymous and original owner at the helm.

“I grew up in Sonoma County and took my degree at Sonoma State,” he said. “After graduation, I attended the police academy and started working as a probationary officer in San Francisco. But I’d done a lot of side work in this shop for Bob growing up, and when the offer came to buy it, I took it. I never thought I’d be a body shop owner — but here I am.”

Things were tight when Casolla and his crew got back to work. But now his insurance money for lost inventory has come in, and he kicked a percentage to his workers to compensate for lost wages. His shop is full of cars, and business is humming.

“We have a lot of typical (collision) insurance work coming in,” said Casolla, “but we’re especially known for our custom work on classic cars. Before the fires, we had people from Southern California, from out of state, bringing their cars to us. And of course we had work from local classic car owners — a lot of people, including winery owners, had extensive collections.”

But many of those customers lost their cars to the fires that swept through Sonoma Valley and Sonoma County. And even car buffs with collections that escaped the flames are foregoing restoration work.

“Insurance adjusters can be really rigorous on classic car documentation, so owners who lost cars may not be ready to replace them,” Casolla said. “And most people who still have their cars are dealing with a lot of different priorities right now. We understand that. We have quite a few jobs, and I’m confident our classic car work will come back in time.”

That resilient outlook is prevalent if not predominant among Sonoma County employers and economic observers, who are looking into the future for signs of what might fuel growth or drag it down.

The biggest boom on the horizon? Home construction, when it finally gets underway in earnest, building officials say.

“Some contractors have five or 10 homes under contract, they’re ready to go, and there aren’t enough framers,” said Keith Woods, the CEO of the North Bay Builders Exchange, a trade group. “Nothing happens on a house until it’s framed. It’s the first step.”

Six months after the North Bay fires and the destruction of nearly 5,300 Sonoma County homes, only a handful of building permits for new houses have been issued. But just wait, said Woods, things are about to get interesting. And for builders, architects, engineers, subcontractors and skilled and semi-skilled laborers who can take part, the activity is likely to translate into prosperity.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

“I liken it to the tsunami that sometimes follows a big earthquake,” said Woods, “but in our case the quake was the fires and the tsunami is slow moving. I anticipate a flood of construction work over the next five to eight years.”

Woods cautions that the timescale of the recovery will be affected by a couple of factors that remain unknown. Though at least $7.5 billion in insurance payments are expected to flow into the county — along with sizable FEMA grants and U.S. Small Business Administration loans — some of that money is expected to flow right back out again.

“A lot of people are still undecided about pulling the trigger on rebuilding,” Woods said. “There will be a massive influx of insurance money, but whether it all stays here or moves out is another matter. Undoubtedly, it’ll be a mixed bag. Some people will rebuild, some will figure they’d be better off starting over in Nevada. Or older residents may decide they need less house, and they’ll downsize.”

Another problem, of course, is housing the workers who will build the houses.

“Where will our workers be living?” Woods asked rhetorically. “Maybe with you. We’re training hundreds of new workers, high school seniors, through the North Bay Construction Corps. They already have places to live, and for other workers it will be the era of creative housing — prefab, multiuse, multifamily. We won’t be able to single- family-home our way out of this.”

Tourism was and remains foundational to Sonoma County employment, and the fires delivered the hospitality industry a devastating body blow. Residents quickly determined that only about 7 percent of the county’s area was directly affected by the fires, but that message took a while to percolate to the outside world.

As a consequence, the winter was relatively sluggish for tourism-related businesses. But the fires have brought an influx of “second responder” relief workers, insurance adjusters and construction workers, many of whom are occupying hotel and motel rooms for extended periods of time. Combined with the business from displaced residents, it’s no surprise that many hotels have been at full occupancy and their employees assured of steady work.

“We’re seeing a bifurcation in lodging,” said Tim Zahner, the chief operating officer of Sonoma County Tourism. “The larger ones, particularly those along the 101 corridor that can offer contracts or rates to second responders, may be doing better than, say, small bed and breakfast inns in more remote parts of the county.”

In a recent survey conducted by Sonoma County Tourism, 32 percent of lodging business principals said trade had increased for February and March compared with the same period last year, 42 percent said it had decreased, and 16 percent said it had remained the same. For wineries, 26 percent reported an uptick in business, while 57 percent said trade had decreased.

One region that seems to have weathered the fires’ wake is the Dry Creek Valley, where business in tasting rooms remains robust, said Kim Stare Wallace, president of Dry Creek Vineyard, which sits about 5 miles west of the front for the Pocket fire outside of Geyserville.

“We were very lucky,” Wallace said. “Our vineyards and facilities were never affected, and we didn’t miss a beat during the harvest and crush. Tourism was definitely down for several weeks after the fires, but the visitors are back and we’re feeling very optimistic.”

Wallace said restaurants and inns are also busy in nearby Healdsburg.

“I poured at a Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce event recently, and the entire town was packed,” Wallace said “I couldn’t find a place to park. Business is strong, and people are working.”

Most wineries weren’t directly affected by the fires, but Santa Rosa’s Paradise Ridge Winery took a direct hit. Three homes, four barns, a winemaking building and a tasting and events center burned to the ground. Sonia Byck-Barwick, a Paradise Ridge co-owner, acknowledged the disaster has been a heavy burden on both owners and employees.

“My father (founder Walter Byck) was and is absolutely intent on forging ahead, no matter what,” she said. “But once we started looking at our insurance reimbursement and the costs of rebuilding, I just didn’t think we could do it. What changed my mind was the incredible support we got — we’re getting — from the community. They’re keeping us strong. So we’re moving forward. We’re doing custom crushing at a nearby winery, we’re putting up temporary offices on the property as we rebuild, and we hope to open to a limited degree soon. We know there will be bumps, but we’re anticipating things will get easier over time.”

Sitting in his office, Casolla looked out the window to his shop floor and sighed as he grappled with his responsibilities as an employer.

“This shop isn’t just about me,” he said. “I didn’t know what real responsibility felt like until I had five full-time guys and their families depending on me. It’s a little scary.”

That sentiment is widespread among business community and residents bracing for a long, difficult recovery.

“I’m optimistic about the long-term future of Sonoma County,” Tim Zahner said. “I’m also realistic. Everyone who lives here knows someone who has been deeply affected by this disaster. People lost their jobs, their homes, or both. So if we’re going to avoid a second tragedy — a deep economic downturn — we have to assist the people and businesses who need help. And it’s not just a matter of economics. They’re our friends and neighbors.”

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