THOUGH THE MOOD in Marin is by no means one of exuberance, the county is on solid economic footing and the outlook for the coming year is favorable, many residents, merchants and experts say.
"In general, the signs for 2014 are good," said Robert Eyler, head of the Marin Economic Forum. Eyler, a Sonoma State University professor, noted that the median price of a Marin home is up $187,000. He predicted that the $846,000 median price will rise and Marin will add 2,000 jobs, mostly in construction and service industries.
Eyler's sentiments were echoed by sources across the spectrum, as professionals in the field pointed to positive signs. San Rafael's economic development manager mentioned increased commercial occupancy and sales tax income.
Looking forward to 2014, "I think we're going to get some spillover effect from San Francisco and the hot real estate market there because Marin is a fantastic place to live. We are seeing younger families moving here," Lovette said."Things are going well in San Rafael. Vacancies are down in commercial office spaces and also we're seeing sales tax starting to creep back up, led by auto dealers, and of course our new Target," said manager Stephanie Lovette.
Rick Wells, San Rafael's Chamber of Commerce president, also cited the increase in sales tax, adding, "Combining that with the holiday season strong showing from the automotive sector, these are strong indicators of growth for the local economy."
In Corte Madera, "We have had steady improvement over the last couple of years," said George Warman, the town's finance director. Corte Madera is among the retail hubs in Marin, boasting major shopping centers The Village at Corte Madera and the Corte Madera Town Center.
Warman said he does not expect the robust performance the town saw before the 2008 crash "because of the Internet."
Shoppers often visit brick-and-mortar stores to check items out and then purchase online, Warman said. Regardless, overall the town is doing well, with its commercial spaces up to normal occupancy and no prominent businesses relocating, the finance director noted.
Up north, Novato's economic development manager and the chief executive of its chamber of commerce both had good things to say.
"I think there are signs of a little bit of additional recovery going on in Novato in terms of various sectors," said Coy Smith, chief executive of the Novato Chamber of Commerce. "The hotel industry is up this year. Room occupancy rates are up, which is usually a good sign of some type of recovery.
"There certainly has been growth in biotech," Smith added, referring to the cluster of biotech firms headquartered in Novato. While BioMarin, the largest of the group, moved its headquarters to San Rafael in 2012, it still has facilities in Novato, and smaller firms such as Ultragenyx are also headquartered there."Housing seems to be on the rise and that's a good indicator," Smith said. According to the Marin County Assessor's Office, the median price in Novato went up every month in the first 11 months of 2013, sometimes in double digits.
Along those lines, "The biggest thing for us is to trying to build around the Buck Institute (for Research on Aging) and the bio/life science area," said Chris Stewart, Novato's economic development manager. In his quest to attract biotech firms and their high-paying jobs to Novato, Stewart is finalizing a contract with an international marketing firm to whom the city will pay approximately $250,000 to put on a marketing campaign, he said.
Stewart is working with Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties to pool money and efforts to draw such firms to those three counties and Marin, he said. "We are going to ask each of those counties to match Novato's $250,000 and get a campaign going in the four-county area of about $1 million in the next three years.
"Our goal is to bring in 100 new jobs every year over the next three years with this campaign just for Novato," Stewart said.
While officials like Stewart lay their plans for 2014, merchants like Steve Jordan, proprietor of Novato's Creekside Bakery, are getting experience with Marin's economic state on a day-to-day basis.
"Everything is going great. The holiday seasons are always good," Jordan said of his business. "It gives us an opportunity to crank out holiday foods." While the business "took a little hit when the market crashed in 2008," Jordan said, Creekside is doing well.
"The last few years were fairly flat, but this year we've seen growth," said Christian Dean, owner of San Rafael's Magic Flute music store. "A big part of our business is renting instruments to kids in elementary and middle school. We saw a bump this year, mostly because there are more kids."
Dean added, "Early holiday shopping signs seem to be pretty good."
Not every merchant was faring as well as Jordan and Dean, however.
"For Small Business Saturday we were up about 25 percent, which was great. In December it seems as though we got off to a slower start. We're doing about the same as last year, it's down a hair. We are missing a weekend in December, and it will be interesting to see how everybody comes out in the next two weeks," said Jan Morris, co-owner of Morris & Co. in Novato.
"It's a bit on the slow side, as far as I can see. One day it's up, one day it's down," said Anne Wade, owner of Anne's Secret Hang-Ups in Novato. "We're doing OK.
"There's always a rush the last few days before Christmas. Seems like the husbands wait until the last minute to do their shopping. We (downtown Novato merchants) always have the regulars who come to our stores to shop for the women," Wade said.
Shoppers dashing about for holiday gifts appeared enthused about the road to recovery. Among them was Julianna Olate, buttonholed in San Rafael's Northgate One shopping center as she carried a package to her car.
"I'm a landscape contractor," the San Rafael resident said. "The clients I work for seem to be able to afford me. They don't seem to be under as much pressure as they were years ago. They are more willing to pay me, so I'm under less pressure." Home prices are rising, Olate said, and "the economic climate in Marin is much more upbeat than it has been."
Ann Snook of San Rafael, another Northgate shopper, said, "I'm hopeful that with house prices going up the economy will be improving." She described her mood as one of "cautious optimism."
On the macro level, things are looking good, according to Jeffrey Michael, director of the Stockton-based Business Forecasting Center at University of the Pacific.
"Marin seems to be adding jobs at a good pace and health and hospitality jobs are growing the fastest," Michael said. "If there is a concern, it would be that earnings from local jobs are not keeping up with the escalation in housing costs. However, local incomes have been getting a large boost from investment earnings and SF commuter earnings, so that overall income growth in Marin is solid."
Most upbeat of all was Cynthia Murray, president of North Bay Leadership Council.
"I feel very optimistic about the 2014 economy, especially in the North Bay," Murray said in an email.
"We expect to see more jobs being created and strong demand for services and products.
Marin's economic health has been in the growth of small businesses, and small business should continue to be the backbone of Marin's job and revenue generation," Murray said.