By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A job creation program financed largely by the private sector is taking credit for helping create about 1,200 new jobs in Sonoma County since 2012.
The reported job growth, concentrated in food processing, technology and manufacturing firms, would account for about a third of total employment gains for the county since mid-2011, according to state data.
The 20-month-old Building Economic Success Together, or BEST program, conceived by the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, presented its job figures Tuesday in an annual report to the county Board of Supervisors.
BEST officials credited outreach to more than 270 companies and business-to-business networking with leading to the new jobs. Most reflected expansion of existing local firms rather than new businesses moving to the area. The venture also reported more than 100 jobs it said it helped retain by convincing American AgCredit, the largest local financial institution, to keep its headquarters in Sonoma County.
“We are a small group, but we work very hard to collaborate and engage people throughout the county,” said Carolyn Stark, the BEST program’s executive director.
The $3.1 million initiative has the overall goal of generating 4,100 jobs over five years. It is overseen by a 14-member board including banking, health care and technology executives.
Though program supporters have sought buy-in from most local municipalities, Sonoma County remains the lone public-sector investor in the effort, having committed a total of $300,000 over three years.
Supervisors said they were mostly pleased with the results, though they did voice concern about duplication with other economic development efforts, including the county’s in-house program.
BEST officials addressed that concern head-on Tuesday, calling economic development a “team sport.”
“No one does this alone. We all do it together,” said Mike Purvis, the BEST board chairman and chief administrative officer at Sutter Medical Center in Santa Rosa.
Stark echoed those comments, though she was more pointed Monday in an interview addressing what she said were the private group’s comparative strengths in business outreach and networking.
“We’re the tip of the arrow, she said. “Everybody has a place on that shaft.”
Supervisors urged all players to avoid a turf war.
“We all had some trepidation that this was going to be just another layer (of programming) and that it would be expensive,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, suggesting her concerns were not resolved. She was a member of the Santa Rosa City Council when the Chamber of Commerce pitched the effort. The city endorsed the initiative but never provided funding to support it.
The program has a paid staff of three, including Stark, and an annual budget of $400,000. It relies heavily on volunteers from the private and public sectors to interview local business owners.
The Press Democrat and North Bay Business Journal, both owned by Sonoma Media Investments, are among the program’s six dozen private investors.
Supervisors also raised questions about the job growth figures touted by the program.
“How do we know that the jobs that are being created are the direct result of the work of BEST, as opposed to those that would be grown out of an improving economy?” asked Supervisor David Rabbitt, the county board chairman and a BEST board member along with Supervisor Shirlee Zane.
“I’m always reminded of the era of job-growth numbers for the Highway 101 project,” Rabbitt said, citing figures that predicted 1,700 new jobs from the freeway widening. “Well, was there really? I doubt it.”
The job growth reported by BEST would account for less than 1 percent of the county’s overall tally of about 178,000 jobs, according to state employment data.
The BEST tally includes about 700 newly created “direct” jobs and about 480 “indirect” jobs. The latter category is intended to represent a related boost in economic activity from direct job growth and was computed by using a standard multiplier of 0.6 indirect jobs for every new direct position added.
Stark said the job figures reflect positions that companies add after BEST resolves some request for assistance.
This year, most requests came from businesses looking to connect with one another in search of a partner, supplier or other expertise in their niche.
BEST officials said such networking was one supporting role they likely filled better than government officials.
In general, entrepreneurs “like to talk to business people about their business problems,” said Blair Kellison, CEO of Traditional Medicinals, the large Sebastopol-based tea maker.
The program also offers help with workforce training and recruitment, marketing and complying with government regulations.
Stark, in the interview Monday, detailed the permit assistance offered last year to Amy’s Kitchen, allowing the natural frozen foods maker to expand its Santa Rosa plant for tortilla making.
Timing for the project was crucial and BEST officials helped expedite the approval, said Kevin Haslebacher, executive vice president of operations for Amy’s Kitchen.
“Some of these things are pretty complicated issues,” he said. “They’ve been a very good guide helping us sort through that maze.”
BEST reported the project resulted in 20 new jobs, but Haslebacher wasn’t as clear cut in his assessment of the resulting job growth.
“Those kinds of things are hard to say for sure,” he said “But I can say that we have added capacity, which results in local jobs, and that BEST has certainly played a part in that.”
The program’s agreement with the county was to focus not only on retention and expansion of existing businesses but also attraction of new companies.
So far, only two firms have moved or started up in the county with some part played by BEST. The pair includes World Centric, a seller and designer of biodegradable and recyclable food containers, and AVRS, a tech startup specializing in auto registration systems. Together, the businesses account for about 55 new jobs, Stark said.
She said the business attraction process was time consuming and competitive and that program would be devoting additional resources going forward to put Sonoma County on the map.
“We’re not on people’s” radar,” she said. “That’s what marketing and sales have to do.”
Supervisor Efren Carrillo said the still-tentative economic recovery demanded continued investment in what he called a “true representation of a public-private partnership.”
“We ought to be investing when times are tough and when times are good,” he said. “I hope we’re turning the corner to when times are good.”