WatchSonoma Watch

Searching for Santa Rosa’s business-friendly solution


What should Santa Rosa stop doing to make the city more business friendly, and what should it start doing?

Those are the key questions the city’s Economic Competitiveness Task Force began trying to answer Tuesday.

Rip out the parking meters. Have a public relations campaign. Eliminate the public art fee. Address the homeless problem. Give appreciation awards to businesses. Hire an ombudsman.

These and myriad other suggestions were floated by members of the 11-member body at its second meeting.

No consensus has yet formed, and the conversation will continue at the group’s next meeting April 19.

But the group’s first stab at the subject showed no shortage of ideas for how the city could build a stronger economy.

The first step is for Santa Rosa to figure out exactly what kind of city it wants to be, said Paul Schwartz, a commercial real estate broker.

“What do we want to be when we grow up?” Schwartz said. “We’ve got define that before we go out and market ourselves.”

Former Mayor Jane Bender agreed that work needs to be done in defining what makes Santa Rosa special. She referred to the 2007 effort to rebrand the city “California Cornucopia” after years of calling itself “A City Designed for Living.” The city and business groups paid a consultant $80,000 to come up with the new slogan and logo, but the city never officially adopted it.

“What is the brand of Santa Rosa?” she said. “Cornucopia? Is this working? What is Santa Rosa to a business looking to locate here?”

To some, it is a bureaucratic nightmare, said Cynthia Murray, president of the North Bay Leadership Council.

Businesses are afraid to contact the city sometimes because they worry city workers will not help them but rather make their lives more difficult.

“They’re always in regulator mode,” Murray said. “It’s like death by a thousand cuts.”

Such a portrayal was by no means universal, however.

Stephen Gale, a business consultant and vice chairman of the city’s Board of Public Utilities, said the “horror stories” about dealing with the city persist but are not an accurate reflection of the city today.

He pointed to a presentation by Chuck Regalia, director of community development, highlighting the city’s efforts to streamline and cut red tape.

“I think the reality is that thing have changed,” Gale said, “and they will begin to discover it when they begin processing projects gain.”

A problem is that people read about and remember companies, such as Medtronic, Amy’s Kitchen and others, moving jobs out of the area, said Bill Silver, dean of Sonoma State University’s School of Business and Economics.

That begins to dominate the narrative, he said. The trick is for the city to focus on one project, such as transforming the former AT&T building, and get it done so the city can point to a recent success.

“Just do one,” Silver said. “People want some sort of momentum.”

34 Responses to “Searching for Santa Rosa’s business-friendly solution”

  1. Juvenal says:

    In Somalia, fees and taxes are nil–but you must hire a small army to drive across town for a beer.

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  2. Jon Bixler says:

    @ Eric.

    Thanks. Wisdom. Finally.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

  3. Eric Anderson says:

    A group of us – credible developers & design professionals collectively responsible for a billion dollars of good, smart-growth development – have proposed reuniting Courthouse Square. Our idea has been on the table for four years. It was reiterated to the new council after the last election.

    The last Council seemed interested in the idea but allowed the idea to founder on process, i.e. they could not figure out how to “do it.” The current Council – the “business friendly version” – has failed even to respond to our proposal to invest $10MM into Santa Rosa’s Downtown. Not even a a “thank you for your inquiry” email. Nothing.

    Not everyone is in agreement with knitting the square back together but enough are to make it happen and it is an idea that every credible expert – local and national – has suggested be the first step in remaking Santa Rosa’s failed Downtown. Our plan may not ultimately be successful – or financeable – but we have offered our time and our energy and our capital at no obligation to Santa Rosa if we are unsuccessful. Santa Rosa’s present pro-business Council cannot even bother to respond to our recently renewed offer.

    I offer this anecdote only by way of encouraging you to reconsider the analytic framework of “pro” and “anti” councils. In my experience there is little connection between regulation and development, e.g. both NYC and Houston have managed substantial, complicated development despite their completely different regulatory approaches. Instead, I would encourage you to think of Santa Rosa’s political culture as essentially moribund, where creative thinking and rigorous analysis and – most importantly – common sense is less valued than personal relationships, a sort of “old boys network” except that not everyone is old and not everyone is a boy.

    Looking at Santa Rosa with the advantage of distance, it is curious to see how a place that is so dominated by progressive instincts acts so conservatively, be the actors “greenies” or “pro-business” types. To state this point is to rattle any number of cages but I do so because I have the advantage of knowing SR intimately for nearly 50 years while having done business in other states and cities.

    Santa Rosa’s leadership has the scent of desperation about it, understandable given the success of neighboring communities as disparate as Graton, San Francisco and Healdsburg. A recent plan to yet again replace garbage cans and install more bollards along 4th St is indication enough that SR is without direction. Will this latest Task Force generate any thinking that will encourage the creation of a single job? Goodness, I certainly hope so. There are many avenues to success, following are some general ideas that may be widely applied:

    *completely replace the housing & economic development staffs given their failure to create workable ideas & programs (and they are cowed by the political class);

    *act with urgency because it is a competitive marketplace and SoCo’s/SR’s strengths are dated and becoming more so (and, no, you can’t take credit for either the landscape or the weather);

    *encourage micro-business formation (less than $200k in gross sales by waiving every ministerial impediment, fee or other required action to start a business…everything…yes, everything;

    *encourage dense development;

    *encourage tourism;

    *provide that each idea or program or incentive is “as of right” and that any party can access every program or incentive, deemphasizing personal relationships;

    *be less defensive regarding criticism from near & far and instead learn from it.

    Engage credible parties whether their home base be local or otherwise and give them running room to do and make and create. This will require leadership willing to anger folks, a fact of change. None of this is easy and the discourse in SR and in the PD is as angry as anything I have seen anywhere. Makes it hard to get anything done, unless you have a plan, you stick with it and you ignore the anger, believing that your plan is worthy.

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  4. GAJ says:

    Thanks for the post Jon.

    45 freaking pages to explain all the fees!

    Thumb up 9 Thumb down 4

  5. Jon Bixler says:

    The fee schedule for doing business with the City seems a bit on the ridiculous side… perhaps they should have a look and see what can be done. If I were opening a new business in this town, the fee schedule alone would be discouraging. Have a look.


    Thumb up 12 Thumb down 4

  6. James Bennett says:


    Thumb up 8 Thumb down 6

  7. Dave Madigan says:

    @ Ramona:

    I would like to offer one correction if I may.

    There was indeed 3 hours of free parking allowed in the multi-level parking lots in Downtown. This was 20 to 25 years ago?

    The City started chipping away at the free parking time and over the years we have developed this anti-customer policy in the City Parking Department.

    Thumb up 15 Thumb down 2

  8. John Galt says:

    Cool Eric- sounds good. I’ll take my productive, successful business (and the tax revenue it generates) and move to another state… along with my volunteerism and community activism.

    You “sane ones” will have lots of fun “governing” with no money, no jobs, and nothing of value produced by your “governance”.

    Why don’t you try staying on topic, and leave your crazy conspiracy theories and insults at home. While I don’t mind you marginalizing yourself, I’d rather break your arguments with sound logic… but that requires you to actually present arguments.

    Thumb up 22 Thumb down 5

  9. GAJ says:

    Eric said “leave the governing to us sane ones…”

    So, let’s see, by your definition, business people and taxpayers who question an abysmal track record of financial mismanagement by local and State government officials are insane?

    The condescending attitude of our public servants is wearing a little thin.

    Here’s the definition and you fit it to a “T:”

    “showing or characterized by a patronizing or superior attitude toward others.”

    Thumb up 21 Thumb down 8

  10. Eric Newman says:

    Thank God the posters on WSC do not represent the views of the community at large. I’ve actually started to wonder if the Koch Brothers and American Crossroads are funding bloggers to try to dominate local message boards (‘Work from home. Defend liberty in your pajamas’). The twisted hatred and chilling contempt for the ordinary processes of civilization, like elected local government and public sector workers is disturbing and pathological. I wouldn’t put any of these folks in charge of a tool shed. Leave the governing to us sane ones. Keep barking at that big round object in the sky.

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  11. ramona crinella says:

    The downtown has never had free 3 hour parking on the
    streets and low cost long term parking in the lots and garages. So that has not been tried.

    If there has been an attempt to create an identity for
    the downtown, it has been a failure because no one has
    any idea what the downtown is. What draws shoppers to the downtown? What would draw shoppers to the downtown?

    As for the downtown being 100 different property owners,
    yes, you have to get them on board with a plan. But people will usually do what is in their best interest if you explain it properly. But, please, no more consultants.

    When they took parking away on Fourth Street to create
    the “meandering country lane” some consultant decided
    it should become they lost sight of what was
    important, the convenience of customers.

    As far as as “cornucopia” being the new “branding”
    for Santa Rosa, and paying somebody $80,000.
    to come up with that, I think they need to ask for
    the money back.

    Thumb up 20 Thumb down 1

  12. Pearl Alquileres says:

    Isn’t the REAL question “how do we encourage business without sacrificing our anti-capitalistic principals?”
    You gotta just love the irony of using money stolen from… excuse me “revenues collected from” businesses to form the “Economic Competitiveness Task Force” to study how they can take more.
    How about electing people who care more about accommodating success rather than rewarding failure? Maybe if the GOVERNMENT would get out of the way & let Americans do what Americans do best we wouldn’t need to waste resources on an “Economic Competitiveness Task Force”. But then I guess this wouldn’t be California!

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  13. Grey Whitmore says:

    @ Ramona Crinella

    Great comments, except they have either been tried or are already in place.

    And that is one of the problems, people see only PART of what is going on and not the WHOLE picture. They see their small interactions in the downtown but not the challenges.

    Montgomery Village is EASY. Single, private property owner. Downtown Santa Rosa has, I believe at last count, over 100 property and business owners. Do you honestly belief you can find a “plan” that serves them all?

    As for being subject to the “whims” of the council. The city council has little power to GREATLY effect policy. Most of the policy is enshrined in law. It takes a bit of doing to change those things.

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  14. Grey Whitmore says:

    Thank god most of the crack pots on here are not running the government.

    All they see are communists and socialist.

    Nothing in the middle folks? Can’t you wrap your minds around something that is not socialism but is not Darwinian conservatism? No … GOOD. Stay out of government then!

    Thumb up 10 Thumb down 19

  15. I Love to Shop Downtown says:

    This committee needs to look into the soul of the Santa Rosa City Council to find the answers to their rhetorical questions.

    The Council is anti-business and pro public sector union. They are more interested in stopping business growth and private sector job creation than building a solid tax base and growing local economy. Why else would they spend hundreds of thousands of federal tax dollars on green house gas immissions? Why do they stop all box stores that might even think about putting a store in SR?

    This whole committee thing is just another example of a cynical group of politicans who want us to believe they really want something done in Santa Rosa. The empty stores and offices downtown tell the real story.

    Thumb up 19 Thumb down 7

  16. cyclist says:

    Exactly 4 thumbs down…. I see that the city council are probably reading our comments! Take note mayor Olivares , vice mayor Ours and council member Sawyers… we are not happy with the situation! By the way if you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen.

    Thumb up 14 Thumb down 5

  17. K says:

    Can you imagine if you had to pay to shop at Costco! Or Target?!? People wouldn’t shop there.

    Free Parking for 3 Hrs on the street is a good idea!! People hate to pay to shop, as evidenced by the recent Mall Parking Fiasco! People also hate to pay to park while working, Downtown business’ should be given permit spaces in the upper levels of the outlying garages. The garages are never full, so money wont be lost. And downtown sales tax revenue will go up.

    And stop hiring out of town consultants with stupid branding ideas.

    Thumb up 25 Thumb down 3

  18. Phil Maher says:

    Some excellent ideas, Ramona.

    Just to add- Insert a questionnaire into the water bills of all property and business owners soliciting feedback (inclusive of a place for comments) on what not only downtown is to them, and how to make it more business and consumer friendly, but on matters that pertain to improving the state of the city overall. The task force and their staff could then use their time to read, tally, and analyze the responses, instead of spending time taking potshots in the dark or relying on consultants who have no vested interest except for their fees. You’ve saved a bundle of money, given the people a real say in their city, heard it straight from the
    horse’s mouth, and chances are, you’re now well on your way to a prosperous and thriving downtown.

    Or, would that threaten your power and leave too much to common sense?

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  19. john bly says:

    Ramona Crinella’s post has ideas that are constructive and thoughtful.

    I attended the meeting Tuesday morning, and I walked away with optimism that this task force would actually come up with some constructive recommendations that could bolster our economy. I witnessed an honest attempt by volunteers, business people, City staff, and leaders to do some good.

    The City-Business relationship should be changed in such a manner that it is impervious to the whims and politics of Council majorities that come and go each couple of years. Whatever this task force comes up with should be politically neutral, and business positive. I am optimistic they will do just that.

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  20. Steveguy says:

    How about making jobs CITIZEN friendly, instead of illegal friendly ?

    The teens would like to work those jobs, but the illegals steal them, and aren’t a real part of the community.

    My family in part lives in far southern Arizona, the high school kids (white and Mexican American LEGALS do the work, as the Border Patrol is the customer, go figure…. Sanctuary is treasonous.

    Thumb up 17 Thumb down 11

  21. GAJ says:

    Eric said:

    “The worn-out mantra of “lower taxes and less regulation” is a dated formula that has been proven to fail, again and again.”

    You, sir, unlike I, did NOT operate a business in Sonoma County that employed 200 people for almost 30 years.

    To say that during that period I faced “lower taxes and less regulation” is absolutely and completely laughable!

    It is obvious that you favor “higher taxes, fees and more regulation” which was EXACTLY my experience in those 30 years.

    I thank my lucky stars every day that I sold a few years ago.

    Thumb up 22 Thumb down 7

  22. ramona crinella says:

    First of all, make all parking for three hours free downtown
    in the downtown streets.

    Have traffic enforcement mark the outside wheels of
    the cars so that employees just don’t back the car up so
    that the marks don’t show. Use different colors daily.

    Make the fine for parking over three hours huge.

    At the same time, make the long term fees at the parking
    lots very low so the employees will park in them.

    Explain to employees that the convenient parking needs
    to be saved for customers. Store owners should
    routinely check to see that their employees are
    parking on the outskirts. A smart owner will ask to see
    the daily parking stub if each employee to ensure this is done.

    Give the downtown an identity. What does one go downtown
    to do or buy? For example, you go to Montgomery Village
    if you want upscale food and merchandise.

    What is downtown? A financial center? A restaurant
    district? A place to buy things but what kinds of things?
    Homewares? Furniture? You have two strong
    anchors, Corricks and Pedersons, you could start with
    those and find others to create a strong identity.

    Try to figure out what kinds of goods and services are
    not now available in Santa Rosa. Why do people
    leave the area to shop elsewhere?

    Ask for people to send in ideas of what the downtown
    should be. Pick an identity. This could be done in one
    afternoon rather that years of public meetings and high
    priced consultants. Make a plan as to what kind of
    business would enhance the downtown plan.

    Offer incentives to those kinds of business to locate downtown. Stick to the plan.

    Create a committee to go out and find the tenants that
    enhance the identity plan.

    Get everybody government and business owners thinking
    about making things easy for customers.

    Sales tax revenues will go up for the city, and the tax
    value on the buildings will increase.

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  23. Steveguy says:

    Try making affordable housing by creating a granny unit ( sometimes literally to help out granny).

    $100,000 dollars later, then get a permit ? Exagerated yes, but add it up.

    The permit and use pemits have been taken over by a myriad of rules, neighborhood oppositions for anything, lawsuits over everything, nitpicky design review, etc etc.

    Land of the Free ? Nope

    Land of the Fee ? Yes

    Thumb up 28 Thumb down 8

  24. cyclist says:

    Having to pay $100 to be able to park in front of your business to unload goods. Squeeze the small business owners for more fees to operate a business and support the big corporation like Simon’s and allow them to charge for parking are wise decisions.
    Good start city council….. What is on the next agenda Honorable mayor Olivares and council members Ours, Bartley and Sawyers?

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  25. Phil Maher says:


    Please describe, in painful detail, your outline and definition of how you see “smart growth and shared prosperity” going down. Please also tell me why I would want to give you any of what I have, and how you would apply it to making the world a better place.

    Thumb up 20 Thumb down 10

  26. Dogs Rule says:

    Santa Rosa is business friendly. If you are a huge national corporation you can make wads of cash in Santa Rosa. If you’re an individual and need a parking space, a reasonable permit, or you need to build something -you better go stick a fork in your eye.

    Thumb up 32 Thumb down 7

  27. Eric Newman says:

    “Strategic Economic Development Task Force”

    That’s a recommended change to the current title of the task force. The current title has embedded in it the misguided concept that the primary issue for economic development is lack of ‘competitiveness’. That logic leads to the “Texas” solution, cutting back on public sector expenditures, dropping regulation to the lowest common denominator, and shifting the focus of government from protecting and nurturing the common good to serving as the enforcer for corporate and business interests. The U.S. has been going down that path full speed ahead since 2000 and it lead to to global meltdown and a collapse of the necessary investments in the physical and social infrastructure necessary for a healthy 21st century economy.

    The worn-out mantra of “lower taxes and less regulation” is a dated formula that has been proven to fail, again and again. The Chamber and its ideological allies like the North Bay Leadership Council keep peddling this same snake oil, even after it has proven to be toxic year after year. They had their thirty year run, starting with the Reagan Administration, and it has failed to deliver widely shared prosperity and a healthy social environment.

    The Task Force would do well to listen to the expert advice of committee members like Stephen Gale, who is proposing a new game plan: strategic investments in infra-structure and social capital, leading to shared prosperity and integrated development of healthy communities with higher quality of life for all sectors of society, not simply enrichment of the investor class without concern for the long-term consequences.

    New Mantra:
    “Smart Growth with Shared Prosperity”

    Thumb up 14 Thumb down 35

  28. ODB414 says:

    For starters they could stop wasting money on consultants ($80k for a marketing consultant for a logo and slogan they never used????)and endless committees and pass the savings along to the businesses and their patrons.

    Thumb up 35 Thumb down 5

  29. Steele says:

    New leadership is the only solution. The real problem is the residents who vote for special interest candidates who have no real experience in economic policy or large scale management.

    It is a catastrophe that probably will not be correctable. It is why businesses leave SR for other cities or a county location.

    At the end of the day someone has to pay for all of the things these clowns dream up.

    Thumb up 30 Thumb down 8

  30. Mike says:

    Step one, change the thinking at the Santa Rosa politburo, I mean City Council. The fact that the City Council has to even think about what is causing the city to be anti-business says a lot about the total mind set.

    Here in America we call it business regulations, restrictions and the lack of tax incentives. Oh I know, that is old capitalist thinking, but that is what is the bottom line for turning an economy around locally and at the national level.

    The politburo, I mean City Council, should have learned by now that spending $80,000 on slogans will not do the trick. Have they learned that lesson? No. It is not tough, it is impossible to teach old leftest politicans new tricks.

    That is why Stephen Gale, an old democrat politico, sees not problem with the bureaucracy. Red tape is a thing of the past he believes from reading his own reports.

    Well, if all of that is true, no committees are needed and they can all go home with a final statement of a job well done. Thank you certificates for all.

    Following a serious entrepreneur through the permit process in Santa Rosa might prove enlightening. A famous local restaurateur trying to reopen his downtown business might be a teachable moment as the liberals like to say.

    Will anything happen, this is the Santa Rosa City Council and they know how to get things done. Just look at the record, well maybe a little work needs to be done.

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  31. FedUp says:

    What to do to make Santa Rosa business friendly? Here’s an idea, start being friendly to business. Easier said than done when the Council is comprised of anti-corporate, anti-growth environmental whackos. The task force’s real job? Devise a PR campaign to fool unsuspecting out-of-town businesses into thinking the most business adverse county in the country is “business friendly”. God help the idiots that fall for that one.

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  32. Dave Madigan says:

    I find it interesting that a former Mayor and a current BPU official are on this committee.

    Isn’t that the same as having a bank robber help determine how to write a law to make bank robbery legal?

    If you want to fix things at City Hall, don’t ask the people who cause the problem to fix the problem!

    Thumb up 28 Thumb down 13

  33. Fiscal Conservative says:

    This City needs to decide if it is pro-Business or strictly an elected socialist municipality. I doubt this would even be looked at if it were not due to the decrase in taxes causing near bankruptcy.

    ‘Death by a thousand cuts’ ‘horror stories’ Just try to take out a minor building permit. Of course if your homeless you can crap in the street and it’s brown roses. There’s your public art!

    Paragraph 3 is just a begining list. The city needs to realize business has left for several reasons, those that stayed are in big trouble and no businessperson in his/her right mind would chose Santa Rosa as a place to move to.

    The best thing for this City is business people in the mayor’s seat and on the council. Lay off half of city government and allow capitol trade to work.

    I have said enough. The gistapo will be here tomarrow looking for an internet connection permit and have fees and back taxes as the can prove one existed before the permit.

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  34. Chris says:

    How do you make Santa Rosa Business Friendly when Ernesto Olivares thinks redundant committees are how you stimulate the economy? Get rid of Olivares and elect some local business owners to city council.

    Thumb up 31 Thumb down 19

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