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Small-scale entrepreneurs called key to region's economy

  • Economics professor Robert Eyler listens as he is introduced during Wednesday's Economic Outlook Conference at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park. (ALVIN JORNADA/ PD)

Sonoma County's economy is moving forward again, but sustaining growth may require plenty of small-scale entrepreneurs in the hospitality and technology sectors, an economics professor said Wednesday at a conference for more than 1,100 college students and business leaders.

"We have to be the center of innovation," said Sonoma State University professor Robert Eyler. Using baseball terminology to tout the benefit of numerous new businesses, he suggested it was better to "hit 100 singles" than one home run.

Eyler spoke at the university's annual economic outlook conference.

Both Wednesday's setting and its audience spoke of new possibilities. The conference was held at the university's Weill concert hall, which officially opened last fall and already has hosted such classical superstars as Lang Lang and Yo-Yo Ma.

An estimated 700 students turned out for the first portion of the conference.

The students are enrolled in a new class aimed at exposing them to the changes occurring in business, technology, politics and culture. The course, taught by the university's seven deans and the provost, is likely unique among U.S. colleges, President Ruben Armiñana said.

The young adults heard an address by former Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill, standing in the hall named for him and his wife, Joan. Weill, who moved to Sonoma in 2010, pointed to the students and said, "That is the future. God bless you, and don't screw up."

Eyler, a fixture of the conference for years, said the North Bay counties have "a very good short-term forecast."

He noted the UCLA Anderson Forecast recently reported that Sonoma County last year had the fastest job growth in all of California.

But he cautioned that the ongoing fight over spending and debt in Washington could cause enough uncertainty to slow the nation's economic growth.

The weakness in the European Union's economy could mean a stronger dollar and a reverse in tourism as Europe draws more Americans to travel there. And China's demand for energy could mean high gasoline prices here.

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