Is Sonoma County the next Silicon Valley?
By Shepherd Bliss
Silicon Valley's high-tech economy has crashed. The dotcom boom that inflated San Jose and San Francisco with short-term gains is over. What's next? Sonoma County may be the Bay Area's next economic explosion. First the boom, then the bust. Some will rush in to profit, while the rest pay the costs.
The national media is giving Sonoma County a lot of attention for its probusiness climate, its "good life," and its wine. This will make the rich richer, but it is not good news for the quality of life for most of us who live here now. The most damaging of the many recent articles about Sonoma County was Forbes Magazine's May 27 naming of Santa Rosa as second in the nation in their "Best Places for Business" listing.
Only much larger San Diego offers a more appealing business climate. San Jose fell from first last year to 61st this year. San Francisco tumbled from third to 54th.
The New York Times-owned Press Democrat gleefully reports, "Forget about Silicon Valley--Santa Rosa is the big thing in business." Santa Rosa's elevated status on the Forbes' list will induce growth for the city of 153,000 people and the county of 471,000 people.
The potential impact of the Forbes' ranking upon the city that already strangles the county's natural resources concerns this organic farmer. There are limits to growth, and Santa Rosa faces those limits, though most in the business sector continue to advocate the kinds of growth that can bring them short-term gains. Many locals, such as myself, are concerned about the long-term implications of such publicity. Business people around the United States and the world read such listings, and some will relocate their businesses here.
The Forbes' listing appeals to the high-tech business community. The dean of Sonoma State University's school of science and technology, Saeid Rahimi, gloats, "This is wonderful news. We take something like this very seriously. This kind of reputation never hurts."
Actually, it does hurt. Silicon Valley destroyed the rich agricultural heritage that existed in what used to be called the Valley of the Heart's Delight. It had the largest continuous commercial orchards in the world--some 8 million trees on various small family farms. One can barely find a fruit stand there today, but there are many roads, parking lots, big buildings, malls, and now unemployed workers. Is this Sonoma County's future, after the bust?
The probusiness reputation for Sonoma County that Forbes contributes to--as does the Wall Street Journal--hurts local people. The "Attractiveness Principle" is a sociological concept that the very things that attract people to a certain region will be destroyed when too many people move there.
Sonoma County is characterized by giant redwoods, rolling hills, a rugged coastline, and the meandering Russian River. A strong environmental community has built up over the years to defend these and other natural resources, including oak woodlands, the Laguna de Santa Rosa and other wetlands, salmon, and wildlife. To accommodate new businesses and people, Santa Rosa would have to expand further into the hills and wetlands surrounding it and displace native vegetation and farmlands.
Certain families have farmed here for generations. Agriculture was always Sonoma County's top industry, until high-tech replaced it in 2000. Diverse people have been drawn here for decades, including progressive Jews who left New York early in the 20th century to become chicken farmers, 1960s back-to-the-land people, and artists wanting to live in close contact with nature.
In recent years, many children of the county's historical agricultural families have had to move away. They could not afford to live here any more. Our economy and our population is becoming less diverse than it used to be.
Sonoma County is increasingly becoming a colony of giant multinational corporations dependent upon the global economy. More decisions about our economy are being made by managers in board rooms around the world, rather than by people living, working, and loving being here.
Many farmers have felt crowded out and have moved away, often further north to still-rural Mendocino and Humboldt counties. I have been losing manure sources to fertilize my farm plants. In spite of Professor Rahimi's assertion that no one is being hurt, some of us are being hurt. But we are the little guys.
Another way that Sonoma County's national probusiness reputation will hurt us will be through increased pressure to pave over more of the county's rich agricultural land. "Widen Highway 101!" some demand. "Expand the airport!" others shout, wanting a quicker commute back to Silicon Valley and around the world.
A narrow, bumpy county road leads to my small farm, and I will fight against any expansion of roads and the airport which will further hurt our rural culture and our agricultural base.
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From the June 13-19, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.