This article was originally published in the Press Democrat.

By Bill Swindell

Sonoma County will need new and innovative strategies to build at least 25,000 housing units over the next five years for the local economy to keep pace in the aftermath of last year’s fires, county officials outlined Thursday in a new strategic plan to guide economic development.

The new units must be built by 2023 to account for employment growth, fire losses and overcrowding, the county Economic Development Board concluded in its report.

“Until this challenge is met, Sonoma County remains at risk of losing residents who cannot find or afford a place to live,” the report states. “In turn, it will be difficult for businesses and other organizations to operate — from manufacturers and growers to nonprofits, hospitals, government agencies, and schools.”

The report offered such solutions as the formation of a Sonoma County Employer Housing Council, which would include private business leaders, local elected officials, nonprofit representatives and builders; a campaign for a proposed $300 million housing bond; and housing code changes to temporarily allow trailers on and near rebuilding sites for construction workers.

Local business leaders must become more heavily involved in the campaign for new housing, which will affect their ability to attract top talent, said Ben Stone, the board’s executive director. “Without the workforce, we can’t have housing. Without housing, we can’t have a larger economy,” he said.

The report was released during the board’s spring economic forecast conference at the DoubleTree Sonoma Wine Country hotel in Rohnert Park. The board created a 30-member advisory committee that oversaw the plan, which was developed by Avalanche Consulting of Austin, Texas. Brett Martinez, chief executive officer and president of Redwood Credit Union; and Pam Chanter, vice president of Vantreo Insurance Brokerage, chaired the advisory committee.

Housing efforts initiated by the local business community have largely been sector specific. For example, the Sonoma County Winegrowers trade group has sponsored construction of Ortiz Plaza, a 30-unit farmworker housing complex west of Larkfield. Local grape growers also have increased their use of work visas to hire more foreign seasonal workers.

“Right now there are a lot of different groups doing different things,” said Chanter. “I like to see them come together … so we don’t have gaps and we don’t have duplication.”

Besides housing, the board’s plan identified five other key areas to focus economic development efforts into the next decade: workforce and education; business diversification; sustainability; transportation; and fire recovery after the October blazes destroyed 5,300 homes in the county.

The focus on workforce needs would include efforts to retain students who attend Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University from leaving the area after graduation. For example, two-thirds of SSU students leave Sonoma County after receiving their diplomas.

The report called for establishment of a cooperative education program at area high schools and colleges to develop a pipeline of workers for key local industries. Other communities have found success with similar programs.

For example, Northeastern University in Boston has offered students a pathway to employment with such local employers as IBM, Johnson & Johnson and Liberty Mutual Insurance.

Under such programs, students often take a semester off to work at a paid internship or apprenticeship program to gain experience.

“The students are already here and they are already housed,” Stone said of why local students make better job candidates as opposed to recruiting from outside of Northern California.

The report also called for targeting jobs of the future like bicycling design and manufacturing, and agriculture-related technologies — areas where the county already has a cluster of businesses or has natural advantages. In bicycling, the county has a burgeoning higher-end bicycling industry with such businesses as Yuba Bikes in Cotati and Soulcraft in Petaluma.

While the bicycling industry is dominated by a few major producers, the report noted “that smaller manufacturers of bicycle components and apparel are often successful by focusing on niche applications.”

The report said the sector is poised for continued growth, given that bicycle commuting in the United States has increased by more than 30 percent since 2010.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or On Twitter @BillSwindell.