At a commercial real estate forum this week, a mix of roughly 15 developers, real estate agents and property owners gathered at City Hall to hear what the city's doing to fill its empty buildings and vacant storefronts.
And although it's hardly news that Rohnert Park's commercial vacancies are at record highs, the city has spearheaded a plan to do something about it: work openly with businesses that want to move in. That means being open-minded to change public policies and aggressively encouraging economic development in depressed parts of town.
The city-sponsored forum was just the first step, said Linda Babonis, Rohnert Park's economic development manager.
"We want to know what you need, and we'll take that as a call to action," Babonis said. "We want to develop a relationship with you, we want to keep you in our city, we want to fill our properties and keep them full."
The city aims to "streamline" its permitting and plan check processes by making sure city departments are working in concert, and by shortening wait times for approvals and inspections.
"We want you to go to the counter and get answers, not be told to go here and there and wait for weeks," Babonis added.
One longtime developer, Jeff Sommers, of Sommers, Oates and Associates, located in Rohnert Park, said the city is on the right track, but has a lot of work to do to fill area vacancies.
"It's a good effort," Sommers said. "But Rohnert Park has a major identity problem. It needs to be known as a town people want to come to. I'd like to attract a microbrewery to town."
One local developer in the crowd said Rohnert Park is not going through anything unique — the economic turmoil that's hit the community is the same from Ukiah, to Sacramento, to the Central Valley.
The numbers on what the real vacancy rate is are conflicting. The Sonoma County Economic Development Board put vacant office space here at 43.4 percent, and empty industrial sapce at 11.6. That doesn't include the shuttered or State Farm Insurance, however, or the new and 24-Hour Fitness that just moved into the North Bay Centre.
The city says commercial vacancies here range between 30 and 43 percent, and recent data from Cassidy Turley, a Northern California-based commercial real estate firm, put vacant office space here at roughly 32 percent, and industrial at seven percent as of the end of 2011.
The numbers paint a picture — and in Rohnert Park, the city acknowledges that it's not bright. But .
“I think the whole country right now is going through the Great Recession,” said Ben Stone, the executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. “But I think Rohnert Park is well-positioned as the economy recovers — you’ve got a higher vacancy rate here, and that offers more opportunities to businesses looking to expand and relocate as well as more housing choices.”
“Rohnert Park has a lot in its toolbox,” he added. “When the Donald and Maureen Green Music Center becomes operational, that will create a huge economic boost for the city. It’ll expose a lot of people to Rohnert Park that wouldn’t see the city otherwise.”
Real estate experts said in addition to the Green Music Center, the city’s parks, , and the possibility of a can turn the city around.
But with all growth, especially in a down economy, private development projects can fizzle on a whim. However, Marilyn Ponton, the city's planning and building manager, said though it's taken longer than expected, there's movement on six of the city's development projects underway.
- Northeast Specific Plan: A 275-acre housing complex east of Snyder Lane, between G Section and Keiser Avenue. Includes 1,090 total units and park space. The development's draft environmental impact report is in for staff review. Ponton calls plans "very close."
- Sonoma Mountain Village: A mixed-use development, including housing, commercial and open space. Housing is 1,684 total units. The , attracting new businesses.
- University District Specific Plan: A mixed-use development north of Rohnert Park expressway. Elements include open space, commercial uses, such as restaurants, and 1,645 housing units. About 175,000 square feet would be used for commercial. Plan is currently being amended to reflect a new market, Ponton said.
- Southeast Specific Plan: An 80-acre development east of Bodway Parkway, west of Petaluma Hill Road, north of Valley House Drive. Includes about 475 residential units and roughly 10,000 square feet of commercial space. Currently in pre-application stage, Ponton said.
- Wilfred-Dowdell: West of Redwood Drive and east of Dowdell Avenue, near Home Depot. This would be a new commercial area, to include 302,114 square feet. Currently there's a McDonalds and an Oxford Suites hotel planned.
- Stadium Land Planned Development: Mixed-use development made of about 140,000 square feet of commercial uses, light industrial and about 338 residential units. Ponton says entitlements are in process.