Chamber honors TOP businesses

The Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce recognized 31 Valley businesses at its annual TOPS in Sonoma breakfast Thursday, and awarded the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn the honor of being 2013 Business of the Year.

The event was a celebratory affair, as a parade of speakers painted a positive picture of the Valley’s evolving business climate and released statistics showing business confidence is increasing along with the rate of new job hires.

The 31 top businesses accounted for 2,500 jobs and those situated inside Sonoma city limits provided 60 percent of the city’s sales tax revenue and 80 percent of the hotel tax revenue.

The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn (SMI) was praised as a model of sustainability with countless environmental initiatives and extensive outreach into the community. As part of the Fairmont corporate commitment to sustainable practices, each of the company’s 50 hotel properties fields a “Green Team” to undertake environmental initiatives in their local communities.

For SMI, that has meant teaming with the Sonoma Ecology Center on the annual Coast and Creek Cleanup, helping support and maintain the Sonoma Overlook Trail, the Sonoma Community Garden and quarterly cleanup days in its Boyes Hot Springs neighborhood. SMI has also reduced its water consumption to one-third less than comparable properties around the world, according to Ecology Center executive director Richard Dale, and has drastically reduced energy consumption through installation of 3,000 low-power light bulbs.

The facility practices organic waste diversion into a vermiculture (worm farm) operation, recycles kitchen oil for biofuel and uses 99-percent pesticide-free and herbicide-free landscaping. In addition, Fairmont’s “Green Team” has adopted El Verano Elementary School, where employees volunteer on numerous projects.

The hotel also supports the Sonoma Valley High School agriculture department with a $15,000 grant, numerous fundraising activities and purchase of hogs raised in the program’s livestock program. Said one FFA member and ag program student, “Without the Fairmont, there probably wouldn’t be an ag program at the high school anymore.”

According to Dale, “Fairmont is probably the top corporation in the world for sustainability.”

Sonoma City Manager Carol Giovanatto provided a snapshot of the city’s current financial health. Calling Sonoma, “The greatest city in California, probably in the nation,” Giovanatto said “the city is a business too, it has to weather the ups and downs of the economy,” and has done a “great job managing your tax dollars.” She explained that 79 percent of the city’s revenues come from taxes, broken down as follows: 22 percent of tax revenues come from transient occupancy taxes (TOT); 18 percent from property tax; 18 percent from sales and use tax; 10 percent from the temporary, Measure J, local sales tax that sunsets in 2018, 4 percent from property tax; 3 percent from franchise tax; and 2 percent from business license tax.

In the wake of redevelopment agency dissolution, Giovanatto explained, 85 cents of each property tax dollars goes to schools while just 15 cents goes into the city’s general fund. Measure J revenues, which are projected at $1.36 million for 2013-14, will help pay for major capital improvement projects, notably street repairs, but that between now and 2018, the city will have to find more sources of revenues to replace the Measure J money.

Laurie Decker, Sonoma Economic Development manager,reported positive response to a survey measuring business confidence. Sixty-seven percent of respondents, she reported, said they are doing slightly better or significantly better than last year, and 36 percent of local businesses have added jobs, while 50 percent report they intend to increase staffing, either through new hires or by increasing hours of existing staff. Decker concluded her report with the news that 25 percent of businesses in the Valley give more than $10,000 a year to schools and nonprofits.

The keynote speaker was Steve Falk, CEO of Sonoma Media Investments, owners of the Index-Tribune, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and the Petaluma Argus Courier. Falk reported that Sonoma County has more robust health than most other parts of California, with the highest job growth rate in the state. And he said there is more retail space under construction in Sonoma County than anywhere else in California. He rose those statistics to the conclusion that, contrary to popular belief, newspapers aren’t dead.

He quoted Berkshire Hathaway billionaire Warren Buffett, who recently bought up 30 local and regional newspapers and said, “Show me a city or town with a strong sense of community, and I’ll show you a city or town with a strong local newspaper.”

Falk, the former publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, said the two things needed for local newspapers to survive “are a healthy economy and a strong sense of community,” both of which, he concluded, exist in Sonoma.

The ceremonies concluded with El Verano teacher Tim Curley’s class performing a serenade they wrote praising the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn. To which SMI general manager Rick Corcoran, replied, “We have the privilege to be able to influence people’s lives. We enjoy doing it. I put on a suit and come to work every morning and it doesn’t feel like work.”