Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Business leaders say collaboration key to Solano’s future

Monday, September 17, 2012, 5:45 am

Local economy encourages growth, adapts to challenges
By Eric Gneckow, Business Journal Staff Reporter
Regional leaders in business and economics said that a continued synergy among industries and policymakers in Solano County will be crucial to maintaining its diversity of industries and continued growth.

“In these times, economic challenges have forced more people to work collaboratively,” said Sandy Person, president of Solano Economic Development Corporation. “Solano County has been doing that for a long time. I think Solano County is doing it better.”

Speaking in advance of North Bay Business Journal‘s second-annual Impact Solano conference on Sept. 26 in Fairfield, Ms. Person and other conference speakers said the county’s economy continues to evolve and encourage opportunities for growth while responding to a changed landscape following the worst periods of the economic recession.

Part of those efforts have included leveraging the assets of Solano County municipalities to attract companies across a variety of sectors, including biotechnology, energy and food processing.
Centrally located in what economic professionals call the Northern California Megaregion, Solano County sits at the intersection of several major freeways and railways and has a commercial port, Benicia.

“We’re between the political powerhouse of Sacramento and the business powerhouses of San Francisco and Silicon Valley,” Ms. Person said.

The county also has ample natural gas reserves and weather conditions that have allowed for wind-power developments that will soon exceed 1 gigawatt of annual electricity production — enough to power approximately 1 million California homes.

Despite those assets, Solano’s economy has not been immune to the effects of the recession. Construction, one of the largest among seven industry clusters tracked by the Solano EDC, has been particularly strained.

Yet in that changing landscape, other clusters have thrived. Ms. Person said that the concentration of development in Solano County’s urban areas has allowed for a corresponding concentration of infrastructure, such as wastewater treatment. Those facilities have allowed for a cluster of international biotechnology manufacturers to develop in Vacaville and for Anheuser-Busch to operate a brewery round the clock in Fairfield.

To help provide that workforce, Solano Community College has begun to offer certificate programs in mechatronics (combines mechanical, electrical, computer, software, control and systems engineering), wastewater technology and biotechnology. Such training is a collaborative approach to supporting the regional economy, which also draws an educated workforce from surrounding universities that include the University of California at Davis and California Maritime Academy, according to Ms. Person.

And local business is taking notice. “From a workforce standpoint, there are a number of outstanding colleges in the area,” said Kevin Finger, general manager of Anheuser-Busch’s Fairfield brewery and a conference speaker.

The demand for workers among those employers and others has grown, Ms. Person said. While 75,000 residents commute outside of Solano for work, 30,000 now commute into the county.
As those industries continue to evolve, Solano still maintains its longtime largest employer, Travis Air Force Base. The base employs 15,000 service members and civilians.

“One of the things that Travis lends itself to is not only being a large employer, but funneling federal dollars into Solano County,” said Robert Eyler, Ph.D., chair of the economics department at Sonoma State University and director of the institution’s Center for Regional Economic Analysis. Dr. Eyler is the conference keynote speaker.

While its role in the overall regional economy has waned amid growth in other sectors, the Air Force base still drives growth in other industries in the county. The base has turned toward the local economy for assistance in its own growth, recently holding an “industry day” to gather ideas on sustainable energy production and development of land at the site.

The base infused $1.4 billion into the Solano economy last year, according to Ms. Person.
Solano County had a net gain of 3,700 jobs in July from a year before, according to the most recent job data from the state Economic Development Department.

Trade, transportation and utilities sectors had the highest growth, with 1,300 new jobs. That was followed by 1,000 in leisure and hospitality, 900 in education and 700 in business services.
The overall Solano unemployment rate was 10.3 percent in July, down substantially from 11.9 percent in 2011.

Some challenges are on Solano’s horizon, Ms. Person cautioned. Those include limited space for wind-energy development, which is currently restricted to areas in the Montezuma Hills.
“It’s a very diverse economy,” Dr. Eyler said. “It’s just that they will need to figure out how they will look in the future.”