By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Marilyn Ponton, Rohnert Park’s normally low-key development services manager, laughed and spoke in exclamation points as she said, “We’re on the map! We’ve been discovered!”
The Friendly City’s economy, if not quite booming yet, is making loud noises as 2014 starts. The shift in fortune buttresses city leaders’ claims that they have been laying the groundwork for an economic recovery and further development.
It is home to two high-profile venues that draw visitors from around the Bay Area — The Green Music Center and the Graton casino. New businesses are opening as the city reaps the benefits of changes it made in permitting procedures. And a payment from the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria has cracked open the door to long-awaited housing projects.
All that is a far cry from three years ago.
Then facing a $6 million budget deficit, the City Council declared a fiscal emergency and there was talk of bankruptcy. Three of the public swimming pools that the city takes great pride in were shut. Dozens of city jobs were cut. Between 2005 and 2010, at least 2,500 private industry jobs were lost in Rohnert Park, even before one of its biggest employers left town.
Today, the city still faces troubling factors. According to the latest data, it has the county’s highest retail, industrial and office space vacancy rates at 8.1, 10.4 and 43.7 percent respectively. And its retail and office vacancy rates have inched up over the year.
Nonetheless, the city’s business climate has gained distinct momentum, a change that has been noticed countywide.
“It’s really a story of transformation. There’s an awareness now that Rohnert Park is kind of a phoenix. It is starting to rise,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.
With the year-old Green Center at Sonoma State University and the vast, new Graton Resort & Casino, Sonoma County’s third-largest city suddenly boasts projects representing $940 million in investments made by others but from which the city intends to benefit.
“Both those venues bring people to town for a couple of hours, and we have to make the best of those hours while they’re here,” said Mayor Joe Callinan. But, he added, “in the long term, our sustainability is those businesses that are going to come to town and stick around.”
And noticeably, in the past two years as the economy has gradually recovered from the brutal national downturn, that, too, has started to happen.
A steady stream of businesses have opened in Rohnert Park, including a Walgreens; a Chipotle, the national high-end Mexican fast-food chain; a micro-distillery; and two fitness chains. Several more enterprises, including a Panera Bread, Amy’s Kitchen’s first fast-food restaurant, and Get Lean, a food processing company, are expected to set up shop this year.
Santa Rosa restaurateur Nino Rabaa is set to open Flipside Brewhouse in a space formerly occupied by one of the city’s few higher-end eateries, Latitude, which shut in 2010.
And one of the country’s largest developers of mixed-use projects has purchased a vacant, 29-acre office park next to the planned SMART commuter rail station, smack in the city’s center, creating tantalizing possibilities. The deal closed Dec. 24.
There is not quite a consensus on what should happen to the property, which State Farm Insurance departed in 2011 after 34 years. But it is seen as a defining space in the city of 41,000, which was designed as a tranquil, middle-class, suburban haven distinguished by its neighborhood amenities, but lacks a defined downtown.
“How the council handles what we’re going to allow on that is critical. That is the heart of Rohnert Park,” Councilwoman Gina Belforte said.
“I know there are conversations about having a traditional downtown, and I think our property could be part of that effort,” said Joe Guerra, who oversees acquisitions for the new owner, SunCal Cos., which has developments across the country.
He said the vision for the site includes residential and retail uses, and that it will take advantage of the SMART rail station.
As for housing, stalled projects on Rohnert Park’s east side have gained new impetus from a sewer line now under construction, paid for by $12.8 million the Graton Rancheria paid to tie the casino into the city’s sewer system. Now the city, which has not had a new house built since 1998, has about 4,500 new homes and apartments on the horizon.
In a county where the annual population growth has been well under 1 percent for more than a decade — and where a slow-growth outlook has dominated local politics — that kind of housing development could add more than 11,000 people to the city’s population, based on average household size.
That would be an even more notable turnaround for Rohnert Park, which has fewer residents now than it had in 2000.
“We have rooftops in the pipeline,” Ponton said, which means not only development fees and property taxes but potential customers and employees for local businesses that provide the city its essential sales tax revenue.
“It’s exciting to observe the total picture of what’s been happening in Rohnert Park,” said Dave Gouin, Santa Rosa’s director of economic development and housing. “All local economic development not only benefits the city, but adjacent cities and the region as well.”
The improving climate, say city officials, councilmembers and business people, has come about not simply because the city has its financial house in greater order. It has also streamlined its business-permitting process and focused on supporting existing businesses. And it is approaching developers about potential projects.
“I’ve been in the architecture and design professions 25 years and I have not seen a jurisdiction that has provided the kind of bend-over-backwards support and help to a project,” Edmund Wadeson, project manager for Oxford Hotel Group, told the Planning Commission in 2012.
The company plans to break ground this year on a five-story, 163-room hotel down the street from the Graton casino site, which is south of Home Depot.
The city’s attention to its businesses extends well beyond the opening phases, said Matt Fenn, co-owner of Beer Craft, a Commerce Boulevard bottle shop and tasting room that opened in 2012.
“They’ve been awesome, very open, very proactive in being helpful,” Fenn said. “When we’ve reached out to them with ideas about what we’d like to do, they’ve not only responded quickly but they’ve followed up, which I think is kind of rare: ‘How are things going? Are you getting what you need?’”
Ponton, who joined the city in 2009, has implemented changes including an electronic submission process for business proposals. The city promises a response within 10 days, seven for smaller businesses.
But perhaps the most popular change has been to allow business owners or developers to bring in plans and meet with representatives from all the necessary city departments at once, from fire officials to planning and public works staff, rather than meeting separately with each.
“They bring in their concept and we work out even the minute details — we’ll (mark up) their concept plans right there,” Ponton said.
“It really shaves off the number of times we have to go back to them and they have to respond and so forth,” she said.
Some efforts have failed.
A plan to offer low-cost loans to property owners to renovate shopping plazas or office parks died when the state eliminated redevelopment agencies in 2011. Another loan program designed to cut the upfront costs of sewer impact fees has been dormant, with just one loan made since 2010.
But observers say the city has sent a message that it is serious about helping companies thrive there.
“Rohnert Park has been very overt in advertising that they’re open for business. That’s a huge thing for a lot of businesses,” said Rob Eyler, director of Sonoma State University’s Center for Regional Economic Analysis.
“When they do come to Rohnert Park, we say ‘What can we do to help you?’” said Callinan, a Rohnert Park native who owns a construction firm. “’What’s it going to take for you to come to come here and what can we do to make it easier for you?’”
At SunCal, Guerra said that while it was the State Farm site that caught the company’s attention, not Rohnert Park, the city’s efforts played an important role in the company’s decision to move forward.
“We deal with lots of jurisdictions, and I would put Rohnert Park pretty high on the scale of business friendly,” he said. “That was key, no question.”
City officials also are contacting developers and specialists in locating businesses to market a 15-acre site next to Costco, eyeing hotels and another big-box chain. And they have brought in developers to visit sites with the potential for a boutique hotel, with an eye on Green Music Center visitors.
“There’s a lot of opportunities and I think we need to be really aggressive about identifying those,” said Belforte, who acknowledged some satisfaction in being seen as somewhat of a comeback kid.
“I think some people really thought we were going to file for bankruptcy,” she said. “I think some people didn’t believe we could do what we set out to do.”
(You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or email@example.com.)