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