By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Struggling with 40 percent of its office space vacant, years of flat sales tax revenues and a $2.5 million budget deficit, Sonoma County’s third-largest city hopes to help itself by helping commercial property owners.
Rohnert Park officials are fashioning a program to make cheap loans to property owners who want to renovate shopping plazas or office parks.
The program targets a key slice of the city’s commercial landscape, which was designed around amenities including shopping plazas in each neighborhood. Eleven percent of that retail space is vacant, according to the latest city data.
The program, modeled on others run by Sonoma County, Sebastopol and Novato, would use redevelopment funds to make loans with interest rates as low as 0.5¬percent.
“It’s an attempt to get us out of this recession situation … bring back some health and vitality to our commercial centers and create some jobs for our citizens and help the city’s finances,” said interim Assistant City Manager John Dunn.
The program, which is expected to go before the City Council soon, could be derailed if newly installed Gov. Jerry Brown proposes to ax local redevelopment agencies and the Legislature goes along.
But for now, the city is pushing forward, said Dunn, who has been charged with creating and implementing an economic development plan for the city.
“We are proceeding until we learn from Sacramento that it is not feasible,” he said.
Property owners who say Rohnert Park needs to revitalize its economy and better support its existing businesses applauded the plan.
“It’s a very good sign that the city government is looking at ways to invigorate local economic development,” said Jeff Sommers, a partner of Sommers Oats & Associates, a big Rohnert Park developer.
“It shows the city is concerned, as we are, with getting these buildings filled and getting workers and jobs back into the local economy,” he said.
Details about the plan are still being worked out, said Linda Babonis, the city’s housing and redevelopment manager.
“There’s a hundred million questions to answer,” she said.
Those details include whether banks would help process the loans, the total amount that could be available for the program and whether other funding sources might be tapped.
The plan tentatively includes features such as tiered interest rates, with the lowest offered to owners able to match a certain amount of the loan, Babonis said.
In Sebastopol, a similar program offers business owners up to $3,500 — a far smaller sum than would be available in Rohnert Park — for facade improvements that include signage, streetscape changes, awnings and painting.
Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Teresa Ramondo said it has provided a lift to Sebastopol’s business community.
“We found it to be extremely helpful and very positive,” she said. “It gave a number of our businesses the opportunity to clean up their storefronts, gave them a boost.”
County officials said such local efforts can help fuel the broader economy as well.
“It’s another tool in the toolbox to help stimulate the economy,” said Ben Stone, director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.
Economic development strategies that aim to create jobs are most effective when they encourage new businesses to develop, area businesses to relocate and existing businesses to expand, said Jed Kolko, an urban economic development expert at the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California.
“Most job growth comes from businesses that are already part of the local economy or are new businesses,” Kolko said.
“The immediate effects of local economic development extend at least as far as the local labor market, the distance that people are typically willing to commute,” he said.