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Silicon Vineyards

Mark McGrady
Michael Amsler

Heady Times: Mariposa Technologies' Mark McGrady is part of a hi-tech boom that is transforming the local economy.

Cow chips to microchips: Sonoma County rides hi-tech boom.

By Paula Harris

WHEN NEW Sonoma County resident Christina Sunley paints a charming verbal picture of her "incredibly glorious drive to work down country roads" between Sebastopol and Petaluma, she isn't describing the daily commute to a farm or a winery. Sunley, who recently relocated here from San Francisco, works in the research and development department at KnowledgePoint, a Petaluma-based computer software company.

Since leaving the daily grind of the city, she says, her mornings have become "uplifting." Sunley has discovered not only an affinity with the Redwood Empire, but employment worth the relocation. She's not alone.

Tom Mayer--manager of alternate deposition technologies at Flex Products Inc. of Santa Rosa, which uses hi-tech processes to manufacture anti-counterfeiting measures--moved his family here in February from Rochester, N.Y., where he worked at Eastman Kodak Digital Imaging Group. "We'd pretty much had it with the weather in Rochester," he says of the harsh East Coast winters, adding that the other main selling point is "the country-type environment."

Sonoma County, once synonymous with apples, wine, chickens, and dairies, is beginning to reap a whole new yield: a hi-tech harvest that's increasingly attracting scores of newcomers toward a range of technologies emerging in the North Bay.

Until recently, most hi-tech workers and companies had not ventured north of Marin County, but the changes in the Sonoma County workplace are now being evidenced everywhere.

For instance, within the space of one month, a splashy half-page color ad for Rohnert Park's Next Level Communications--that would have looked right at home in the San Jose Mercury News--appeared recently in the classifieds of one local newspaper. "I bet you didn't know that the technology is being designed and manufactured right in your own neighborhood. Well it's true and we're thrilled to be here," gushed the ad copy, ending with an impassioned "Sonoma County is a wonderful place to work and live."

Soon afterward, an ad for Petaluma's Advanced Fibre Communication showed up, complete with an alluring color photograph of lush, verdant vineyards. It also was fishing for prospective employees, declaring, "We're located just 35 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge in the heart of the Sonoma County wine region. Spend your free time hiking, mountain biking, exploring the coast, or discovering the perfect chardonnay."

The hi-tech firm, which bills itself as "the best company in one of the best places in the world," offers "competitive salaries, AFC stock options, relocation assistance, visa sponsorship, and generous benefits."

That same week, yet another classified ad appeared, this time seeking employees for DSC Communications of Petaluma. Here, the bucolic town, formerly known as the "Egg Basket of the World," has been renamed: Potential employees are invited to come work in "Telecom Valley." That is a catchy reference to the dozen or so telecommunications companies that have mushroomed in Petaluma and Rohnert Park in the last few years, swiftly making the once-rural area a world leader in the telecommunications industry.

Shortly after running the ad, DSC held an open house with interviews screened by a 20-member management team. The event was advertised throughout the Bay Area, including Silicon Valley and Santa Clara.

"Over 120 people showed up," says Ron Morgan, DSC's senior human resources manager, who himself recently relocated here from Silicon Valley. "About 50 of them were from Sonoma County. But a large percentage were from telecommunications companies in Texas, the East Coast, and Canada. We're one of the largest relocators into Sonoma County, and we're getting a lot of people coming in and purchasing homes."

Several days later, Don Ross, president of Ross, Lewin and Associates, a four-year-old Sebastopol-based company that specializes in hi-tech recruitment and that mainly places people in the telecommunications and data communications industries, held a talk at the North Bay Career Resource Center in Santa Rosa. The June 18 forum focused on the need to recruit from outside the area to fill positions. Ironically, the talk, which drew only a handful of local people--most of whom expressed little interest in working in the hi-tech field--blatantly illustrated the dilemma.

"The technology is growing faster than the local talent pool," explains Ross. "It's a good time for recruiters like myself. I'm getting paid for selling Sonoma County."

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High-tech in Sonoma County's top companies.

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AS COMPETITION for the hi-tech elite surges nationwide, new local companies are struggling to stand out enough to attract skilled employees to Sonoma County. It's not a hard sell. Accentuating vines, vintages, and the "Valley of the Moon," the Wine Country as a workplace is good enough to bottle.

It seems Sonoma County is attracting people from all across the country and beyond, who are seduced by the temperate climate, breathable air, affordable housing, and relatively unclogged freeways.

According to Ben Stone, director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, potential employees are beginning to equate this area with such desirable California locales as Carmel, Santa Barbara, and La Jolla.

"Sonoma County," says Stone, "is becoming an attractive option for people from outside the area who may have been laid off or who are tired of the corporate world--people who are not wedded to a huge conglomerate and find they can fulfill their dreams on a smaller scale."

He adds that many come here to start up small software companies and computer-based home businesses of their own, such as firms that design Websites.

The demands of the Silicon Valley lifestyle are taking their toll on many employees, says recruiter Ross. "Well-paid couples in the South Bay find themselves working and commuting 11 or more hours a day. They have no life," he explains. "There's pressure in every work situation, but nowhere near the level of insanity as in [Silicon Valley]."

Several real estate agents contacted for this article confirm that they are seeing a marked increase in buyers from San Jose, San Francisco, and Marin County. Recent statistics show moderate growth during the past year in the recovering local real estate market, with the lion's share concentrated in Petaluma, where housing for North Bay hi-tech workers is at a premium.

In some cases, Petaluma real estate agents say home buyers are paying $20,000-$30,000 above asking price to clinch a deal. And there have been reports that Sonoma County homeowners whose houses are on the market have been called by Silicon Valley search companies who want to put them in touch with prospective Silicon Valley buyers.

Many agree that newcomers to this area find they can create a lifestyle they want. They can live on farms or ranches, in small towns or urban centers, amid the diverse local landscapes and various microclimates at what job recruiters like to call "the speed of life."

Carolyn Graham, director of client services for the North Bay Career Resource Center, agrees that people are moving into the North Bay from San Francisco and the South Bay because of the quality of life. To many, Sonoma County offers a rural alternative to the densely packed corridors, crowded housing, and rising rents of the East Bay, South Bay, and San Francisco. Yet it is still within a comfortable distance to the hi-tech hubs of San Jose and San Francisco.

"These people have clarified their values and are willing to make less money to get out of the rat race of Silicon Valley or the City and to balance personal life and work," says Graham. "In the last two or three months the employment outlook had definitely improved. There are a lot more jobs posted in the classifieds."

In addition, Sonoma County salaries are improving, says Ross. "The trend is that salaries are finally coming up to par [with those in neighboring regions], which is a really good sign for the local economy," he says. "I've been in the county 27 years, and generally, across the board, there was a wage inferiority in Sonoma County--employers got away with paying less--but now there's a change and companies are realizing to grow you've got to pay the market rate."

According to Ross, "It's not unheard of for someone with five years of hi-tech experience to earn $80,000 to $90,000 in Sonoma County." Yet some recruitment experts say a significant number of hi-tech workers living here continue to commute into Marin County and San Francisco without realizing that comparable jobs exist in their own back yard.

Ross predicts that, owing to the "critical mass" phenomenon, local technology industries will continue to grow. "A few years ago, there were just a couple such companies here, and it was harder to get people to move out from other areas because there weren't that many games in town," he says. "Now there are so many companies--the software and telecommunications industries are clearly burgeoning--it's becoming known that stuff is happening in Sonoma County and it makes it easier to attract people.

"There's enough technology here, and now people see a future in the area."

short picture description
Michael Amsler

BUT NOT EVERYONE is turned on by this local technology revolution. In Sebastopol, a plan by O'Reilly and Associates, a successful publishing and software company, to build a 168,000-square-foot business park on a 14-acre apple orchard stirred bitter emotions among some residents concerned about the potential loss of small-town charm.

The Sebastopol City Council eventually approved a scaled-down version of the project in October, but there is a lawsuit in the courts attempting to stop it.

"We grew and we were looking at the long-term possibility to stay in Sebastopol," says company president Tim O'Reilly. "This is a long-term project to build an office park in 10 to 15 years; the outcry was that it was too big, but in 10 to 15 years it won't be out of scale at all because this area is going to continue to grow."

An Analysis of Economic Vitality report prepared for the Sonoma County Development Board by Regional Financial Associates, published in September, identified manufacturing/ technology--broken down into information technology, hi-tech electronics, hi-tech instruments and optical goods, and other hi-tech value-added manufacturing--as one of the main engines driving the local economy.

The report finds that within the Bay Area many software firms are migrating north along the Highway 101 corridor from such traditional centers of industry as Santa Clara and Marin counties to less congested and less expensive places to live and work like Sonoma County. The report cites the Marin-based software firm Broderbund, which has expanded its warehousing and distribution operations into Petaluma, as an example. Another Marin company, Autodesk, also moved some of its offices into a Petaluma business park.

Although information technology--technology designed to manage, transmit, and process information--is still a young industry in the North Bay, and a small contributor to the county's overall growth, the report calls it "the fastest growing cluster when measured by job growth and by output," and notes that it has great potential.

The study concludes that a skilled workforce is essential to capture a significant share of the industry, noting that most universities and colleges with programs in computer sciences and engineering are concentrated on the San Francisco Peninsula and in the East Bay.

According to published reports, only 10 percent of Sonoma State University students are enrolled in hi-tech-related majors.

IN AN EFFORT to fill job openings, many North Bay software/hardware, engineering, telecommunications, and multimedia companies--including Advanced Fibre Communications, Autodesk, DSC Communications, Hamilton Software, Parker Hannifin/Compumotor, and SOLA Optical--will participate in a huge career fair Sept. 5 and 6 at the Marin Center in San Rafael. Those fairs usually are held in San Jose.

According to Jo Curtan, president of Career Expo, which produces these fairs on emerging technologies, "There's a major shift--hi-tech businesses are moving into Marin, Sonoma, and Napa. A number of our clients are asking us to produce an event, and we decided the time had come to produce something on-site. There are hundreds of technical positions in the North Bay counties."

The company hopes that the "Careers at the Speed of Life" event will entice potential employees with career opportunities and a more laid-back, outdoors-related quality of life. It will be promoted in print throughout Bay Area and internationally via the Internet.

"It's the first time serious [industry] attention is being paid to this particular area," says Curtan. "It will help put the North Bay on the map as a technical community."

About 50 companies are expected to participate in the job fair, which now has its own Website (www.northbaycareers.com).

"The Website has links to lifestyles in the North Bay and overall basics about the area for people that are thinking about relocating here," explains realtor Allan Corey of Santa Rosa­based Polley, Polley, and Madsen.

"Sonoma County has been growing, and we've been getting involved with more companies here," agrees John Buchwald, chairman of SOFTECH, a 225-member non-profit organization that since 1994 has acted as the North Bay's chamber of commerce for hi-tech firms. "We finally have enough jobs to support the industry, and we're drawing in more expertise."

The effort is being welcomed by many company executives, who say they are trying to fill an unprecedented demand for technically skilled and support personnel. "There's not a large pool of engineers in the telecom industry," says Stefan Mazur, president and CEO of Mariposa Technology in Petaluma, a 7-month-old telecommunications company specializing in a technology that chops data and voices into small, 53-byte cells and transmits them over high-speed links to the Internet.

Mazur says his company searches from Connecticut to Indonesia for prospective workers. Out of his 20 employees, over half are from outside the area, he adds, speaking from Santa Barbara, where an ad is running in the local paper in hopes of attracting engineers into Sonoma County.

He sees a big future for hi-tech in Sonoma County if housing and employee issues can be resolved. "There's no question that it's a growing area. The Bay Area has reached a limit expanding its geographic capabilities--the only place left is north. Clearly, Petaluma, Santa Rosa, and Rohnert Park are in the right spot," says Mazur.

"The speed of expansion is directly linked to the growth of housing. It's not going to shrink; the area is definitely on an expansion course."

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From the July 31-Aug. 6, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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