Marin, April 2010

What will Marin be like a year from now? Have you thought about it?

Obviously, there’s a global economic crisis—but to date, the county has been relatively unscathed. Yes, people in Marin have been laid off and homes foreclosed, but not in great numbers. Agreed, there are vacant storefronts, but not a dramatically distressing amount. And certainly local stock portfolios and property values have suffered—but many Marin restaurants, stores and shops still seem vibrant.

Will Marin be only touched lightly by the global downturn? Or devastated by it? Here are some insights from local professionals about how Marin might appear in April of 2010.

First, there won’t be a drought. “Our reservoirs are now over 80 percent full,” says Paul Helliker, general manager of the Marin Municipal Water District. “So water rationing won’t be needed.” However, Helliker says the district board is still concerned about the county’s precarious water supply. “Back-to-back dry winters would do billions of dollars of damage to the North Bay economy,” he says. “So a $100 million desalination plant will still be discussed. It may well be a sound investment.”

San Rafael attorney Alan B. Guttenberg specializes in real estate and commercial finance. He recently presented a statewide seminar for attorneys titled Real Property Foreclosure. “Marin’s residential property values have already fallen 15 percent,” he says, “and a year from now some areas might be down another 15 to 20 percent.” However, Guttenberg maintains that in the spring of 2010 residential prices will begin recovering.

About Marin’s commercial and office vacancies, Guttenberg feels the trend could be minimized if landlords and troubled tenants consider renegotiating their leases. “In many cases, we’re talking about a 20 to 30 percent reduction in rent,” he says, “because, by most accounts, that’s the amount business has fallen off.” The alternative, he says, is to see tenants going out of business and landlords left with vacancies not easily leased in a down market. “Smart owners are doing this,” Guttenberg says. “So here in Marin, we may get through this thing in pretty good shape.”

Next up, Marin’s $400 million county budget. At last month’s meeting of Friday Forums, County Administrator Matthew Hymel said a recent survey indicated 49 of California’s 58 counties were in “fiscal crisis” but Marin was not among them because of 2008 budget cuts and a hiring freeze. “Right now,” he said, “Marin has the lowest spending per capita for government-provided services, along with a lower rate of unemployment, than comparable-sized Bay Area counties.” However, Hymel thinks the recession will be with Marin for over a year. “Previously, property tax revenues increased between 7 and 10 percent annually,” he said, “but for the next three years we’ve budgeted a 2 to 4 percent increase.”

My thoughts? In 2010, the county will look—and live—much as it does today. First, although Marin is politically progressive, it is also fiscally conservative, in part because of its aging demographic. Residents haven’t leveraged themselves into oversized houses or fancy cars, and local banks are solvent. In addition, Marin doesn’t have housing tracts where mass-foreclosures take place or large companies where mass employee layoffs occur. In this case, Marin’s reluctance to embrace change serves the county well.

Yet, I see positive changes taking place throughout the county. I recently stood in a muddy tunnel that a year from now will connect Larkspur Landing with San Rafael. This $25 million project’s first role will be as a bicycle/pedestrian path; in coming years it will serve SMART, the $540 million eco-friendly commuter rail line reaching into northern Sonoma County. A SMART stop might be near Novato’s Hamilton Landing, where I visited the new offices of ImageMovers Digital, a Disney entity that is employing more than 300 creative minds and producing “performance capture” films such as A Christmas Carol, starring Jim Carrey.

Also, by April 2010 Crate and Barrel will have a 17,000-square-foot presence in Town Center; Paradise Foods will occupy the Safeway space in Ignacio; Woodlands Market will be expanding into Belvedere-Tiburon and Northgate will be improved to the tune of $75 million. My point: despite grim global and national economic forecasts, the county is still moving forward. Based on these and several other factors, Marin in 2010 will appear much as it does now. That’s my point of view. What’s yours?

Email: jwood@marinmagazine.com