Monday, August 07, 2006

Solano benefits from economic ties with surrounding counties
Working to commercialize research; cost of living entices Bay Area companies
Sacramento Business Journal - August 4, 2006
by Melanie Turner
Staff Writer

Solano County at a glance

Population: 422,848 (19th in California)
Two largest cities: Vallejo and Fairfield, with populations of 121,099 and 105,601 respectively.
Two fastest-growing cities over the past 10 years: Rio Vista, with 98.9 percent growth; and Dixon, with 28.6 percent growth.
A county of cities: While 82 percent of Californians live in cities and 18 percent in unincorporated areas, in Solano County 95 percent of residents live within the county's seven cities. In the early 1980s, the residents passed an Urban Growth Initiative, Measure A, which limits most urban growth to incorporated areas.
Solano County's cities: Benicia, Dixon, Fairfield, Rio Vista, Suisun City, Vacaville, Vallejo.
Average wage per job: $38,899
Median household income: $60,400

More than $1 billion in capital expenditures has either been spent in recent years or is being spent now in Solano County as companies such as Anheuser-Busch have modernized and expanded, and as others including Kaiser Permanente and Genentech Inc. build bigger facilities.

Growth is occurring in food-related manufacturing and healthcare, in particular. A lower cost of living and Solano's location along Interstate 80 between San Francisco and Sacramento has provided incentive for companies such as sports drink maker Cytosport Inc. and Guittard Chocolate to relocate to Solano from the Bay Area. Cytosport is in Benicia, and Guittard Chocolate is in Fairfield.

Meanwhile, a growing population is driving healthcare expansions in Vallejo, Fairfield and Vacaville. Solano's population grew 7.2 percent since Census 2000 to 422,848 people this year, according to the California Department of Finance.

Though not all sectors are growing as fast as others, Solano County's diverse economy helps keep it stable, said Mike Ammann, president of Solano Economic Development Corp. Solano also has a strong retail and service industry, agriculture, tourism, and an emerging biotech and medical device industry. The biggest threat to the local economy in the past five years -- the possible closure of Travis Air Force Base -- disappeared last spring.

Bordered by Napa, Yolo, Sacramento and Contra Costa counties, Solano's growth is driven in part by each of its surrounding communities, Ammann said. "We're always kind of in the middle of everything, and in the middle you get kind of pulled in a lot of directions," he said.

For example, Saint-Gobain is building a 1 million-square-foot warehouse to distribute wine bottles to Napa's renowned wine industry. Yolo's University of California Davis, also has an affect. UC Davis employees live in Solano and local businesses serve the university.

"You're starting to see the industries that have to have highly skilled and educated people be pulled up the (Interstate) 80 corridor and that has to do with UC Davis," Ammann said, citing Bio-Rad Laboratories Inc., a Hercules-based company with a lab in Benicia. "We're trying to work with (UCD) to commercialize the research that's coming out of there."
A diverse economy

Fairfield, the county seat, is roughly an equidistant 45-miles northeast of San Francisco and southwest of Sacramento. Most of the county's seven cities sit along heavily traveled I-80 -- the main route for people traveling to and from Lake Tahoe. Historically that's been a boon for business. Businesses such as the Vacaville outlet stores and the Nut Tree, which closed in 1996 and is re-opening now in phases as a retail and family amusement center, count on freeway travelers.

Solano boasts tourist destinations such as Vallejo's Six Flags Marine World and Fairfield's Jelly Belly headquarters and factory. It also hosts an agriculture industry with about 70 commodities, and stable manufacturers like the 3 million gallon-a-day Anheuser-Busch brewery in Fairfield.

"We have a very diverse economy with some things that are growing a little faster than others," Ammann said.

While most businesses tend to grow at a more moderate pace here, the South San Francisco-based biotech giant Genentech, for example, is doubling its Vacaville plant to about 1,200 workers, he said.

People here learned last spring that the possible closure of Travis Air Force Base had passed, Ammann said. Instead, the military has invested more than $100 million for C-17 Globemaster III jet transports, he said. The first aircraft is due to arrive at Travis Aug. 8.

Chuck Eason, director of the Solano County Small Business Development Center, said big retail projects also are coming on line. Seattle-based Triad Communities LP has ongoing projects in Vacaville, Fairfield and Vallejo. Triad is working on a mixed-use retail and residential development in Vallejo's downtown. Retail is coming to Vallejo's waterfront and Mare Island, too.

Triad also is adding office and retail in Fairfield's Allan Witt Park, and housing and offices in Vacaville.
Food means business

Particularly in Fairfield, the food-related manufacturing business has seen growth in recent years. There are stable companies, like Jelly Belly, which moved its headquarters from Oakland to Fairfield 20 years ago. More recently, Englehart Gourmet Foods, a sausage manufacturer, moved from San Francisco to Fairfield in 2003. Companies with plans to move to this city include:

* Guittard Chocolate, with a warehouse here, has plans to move manufacturing from Burlingame to Fairfield in 2007.
* CalBee America Foods is building a manufacturing plant here, moving from Sebastopol to Fairfield, also in 2007.
* Columbus Salami, a San Francisco dried salami and deli products manufacturer since 1917, has purchased 22.5 acres in Fairfield.

Food manufacturing companies are growing in part, officials say, because of the high quality water here. The city gets its water from Lake Berryessa and the Sacramento River delta. Fairfield has water rights to serve full build-out of the community, including its growing manufacturing sector, said Curt Johnston, who manages Fairfield's economic development division. Johnston said the city is "extremely well balanced" with nearly as many jobs as homes.

Travis Air Force Base is Fairfield's biggest employer at 14,900 jobs, followed by the Fairfield-Suisun School District with 3,500 and the county with 3,000. NorthBay Healthcare employs 1,300, and the city, 780.
A healthy healthcare sector

Healthcare is another growing industry here.

With population growth, hospitals in Fairfield and Vacaville are full or nearly full most of the time, said Joanie Erickson, director of public relations for NorthBay, which has been in the community for the past 50 years. NorthBay opened a new emergency room in Fairfield in June 2002 and is building a new emergency room in Vacaville.

Because operating room and office space is limited, the independent healthcare organization finds it tough to recruit physicians, Erickson said. As a result, NorthBay also expects to break ground soon on a Vacaville surgery center. Also coming is a conference center and administration building in Fairfield.

"We anticipate building a third hospital in that area in about 10 years," she said.

Kaiser and Sacramento-based Sutter Health also are expanding. Kaiser is building a hospital in Vacaville and has purchased nine acres for a medical office in Fairfield. Sutter, purchased about 25 acres in Busch Corporate Park to build a second 80,000-square-foot medical office and hospital site south of Highway 12. | 916-447-7661

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