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Sandwich Shop is Barometer of Activity in Bel Marin Keys

Owner of Michael's Sourdough Sandwiches contemplates forming a business association in area struck hard by commercial real estate vacancies.

Last year, Torn Ranch, a growing company looking for room for expansion and poised to hire more employees, moved from Pimental Court in a Bel Marin Keys business park to Cypress Drive in Petaluma. 

In January, BioMarin Pharmaceutical announced that it signed a 10-year lease for 120,000 square feet in the San Rafael Corporate Center taking 350 employees away from Bel Marin Keys. 

In June, Office Playground Inc. announced plans to move from its digs on Hamilton Drive in Bel Marin Keys to Southpoint Boulevard in Petaluma.  

In August, Biosearch Technologies announced that it had purchased a building in Petaluma and was moving 90 employees from Bel Marin Keys to its newly acquired 120,000 square foot office and industrial building.

The list of companies that have left the Bel Marin Keys industrial park in Novato goes beyond these four examples, but perhaps one of the more alarming similarities is that these are not companies looking to downsize or find cheaper rent. In each of those cases, the companies were looking for room to expand.  

With each company move, the Bel Marin Keys area not only loses a significant employee population but a greater future employee population as well. At a minimum, these departures mean less tax revenue for the city, and for the local businesses that provide services and support to them it means making tough choices to stay in business. 

No one understands the impact that defecting companies have on the area better than Corrado Fabbro, owner of Michael’s Sourdough Sandwiches. Businesses such as his are a barometer on the health of commerce in the immediate area.

“We’ve had to lay off people and get concessions from the people we’ve kept,” Fabbro said last week. He said blaming the economy is too simplistic of an answer to explain the exodus of companies from Bel Marin Keys.  

To fight the trend, Fabbro said he is thinking about reaching out to other Bel Marin Keys merchants — and even his competitors — to see if there is any interest in forming a business association. Together they can speak with a louder voice and perhaps be a catalyst for some positive change, he said.  

Fabbro gets an earful from tenants and employers in the area who commonly complain about their property owners and property managers. What they tell him is that the owners are unwilling or unable to make more investments in their properties and the managers are reluctant to make repairs and/or needed improvements.  

Others complain that the buildings in the area no longer suit their needs.  Many do not have adequate loading dock facilities that can better facilitate freight handling. Some of these growing companies have found that they have outgrown the incubator-like facilities in Bel Marin Keys and they must look elsewhere to find commercial space that will support them into their future.   

Fabbro has done business for 16 years in his spot on Digital Drive. He has seen the comings and goings of many companies and the dwindling stream of their employees coming through his doors. Although there have been some moves into Bel Marin Keys, Fabbro knows that on balance there has been a steady flow out of the park.

“You can drive down any street here and see a multitude of 'for lease' signs,” he said.

He believes that the city of Novato and its elected officials could do more to improve the conditions and incentivize startups to come into the area. In fact, the city just hired an economic development director a few weeks ago.

Fabbro doesn’t place the blame solely in the lap of city officials, although he said, “They have a duty and responsibility to make decisions and make efforts to keep the park filled. It just seems to me that they keep allowing Novato’s pockets to get picked.”  

Do you know of a new business opening around town? We want to know! Please contact Tom at tomnovatopatch@gmail.com with all your business tips.

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Cindy October 16, 2012 at 02:06 PM
This is exactly where our community leaders should be putting their efforts, not in hiring "consultants" for signage, etc, etc.... Keep the businesses in Novato, work with the property owners and managers, basic business economics. Our leaders are so busy with building a new city compound and cowtowing to ABAG that they are loosing our vital tax base. We keep saying "wake up Novato" but I am afraid they continue to snooze.
Mark Burnham October 16, 2012 at 02:33 PM
Cindy you nailed it. Thank you!
Jim L October 16, 2012 at 02:33 PM
Cindy , I am a property owner of four commercial property's in Novato and you say work with them the renters . When one does that we take it in the shorts every time. I say keep it vacant until someone who is qualified puts in the application and can pay the rent . They get my property and it always works out . On your other comment Novato Council is awake and doing what we the real voters asked them "BUILD DOWN TOWN NOVATO " Who is sleeping now ?
Mark Burnham October 16, 2012 at 03:09 PM
Jim L. First I am not sure if your post is in english. Secondly, Cindy never said anything about "renters". She actually stated that the city should work with the "property owners and managers". Slowly read the post before you comment. I can only assume that the Viking has WIFI and is open at this very moment.
Ventress Dugan October 16, 2012 at 03:51 PM
Well said, Mark.....!
Baxter October 16, 2012 at 04:08 PM
According to the Novato Draft Housing Element which was partially discussed with the public last night at City Hall, areas such as Bel Marin Keys could be rezoned as multiuse during the next Housing Element phase coming up in 2014. The area, vacancies, etc. could be used for commercial and residential purposes (which the City is now calling an "overlay"). The Bel Marin Keys location is perfect for affordable dense housing units because it would satisfy ABAG's recommendations for housing adjacent to transportation (train station is right there) and close to services, restaurants, grocery stores, etc. Hamilton School is close enough as well. City of Novato should look at the Bel Marin Keys area for potential housing sites in the upcoming 2014-2020 Novato regional housing needs plan. The area could be completely revitalized.
Brent Ainsworth (Editor) October 16, 2012 at 04:21 PM
A reader named Linda emailed me this comment: My husband looked at office space in Bel Marin Keys, but decided not to rent there because of poor Comcast service for high speed internet. As you drive out toward the Bel Marin Keys residential area, the buildings on the right side of the street don't have up to date Comcast service. This is a key reason why the commercial real estate specialists are having a tough time filling up the vacant space. The article is correct that much of the space for rent is shabby and dated, badly in need of reinvestment by property owners. The City Council needs to look at the Bel Marin Keys commercial area and see what can be done to improve the situation.
Norma Dawson October 16, 2012 at 04:38 PM
As someone who works in that area every day, I guess I am missing something. I don't see "shabby and dated" buildings. I don't know about the Comcast situation but we have AT&T and it works fine, great high speed. The business that have left have outgrown the area, but it does seem like new ones move in. I don't agree that it would be a good place for high density housing, the Hamilton Shopping center is crazy enough now, and I think Hamilton School is already serving a lions share of underprivileged children.
Coree Cameron October 16, 2012 at 06:22 PM
I have been working with the Chamber and council for a while now trying to put in place a business association, and have met with Corrado numerous times regarding this. It's easy to blame officials, but I think we need to take responsibility as well. As a Bel Marin Keys business owner, I love the area. It's true that working with AT & T has been a challenge, and Comcast has plans in place to make its service available in the area. It's also true that many of the buildings are a bit run down. Once the business association is in place and operating, we will be able to have a much stronger presence in Novato, and a heavier voice in making decisions for the area - but it really is up to us, we can't just sit back and wait for someone else to be accountable for our park.
Maggie Sapienza October 16, 2012 at 10:08 PM
Corree, I would love to get more information on the business association. As a manager of a business in the area, I would love to be involved!
Craig Belfor October 18, 2012 at 03:23 PM
I was at the same location on Galli Drive for 25 years. The building sold, and when I asked about a new lease when the old one ran out, I was told it would be at $1.25 per square foot. This was for a blank warehouse that I leased with no office, no water supply, no toilet, and limited parking. I found a warehouse in Rohnert Park with a nice office, bathroom, good parking, insulated, sprinklered, alarmed, and with doors tall enough to park my trucks inside for $.58 a square foot. The move saves me $3500 a month. My business license is $150 a year. I still keep an office in Novato, but was billed by the city's license department $1400 for the first year, with no warehouse. It's the money.
Dave Brooks October 18, 2012 at 06:20 PM
We are two Novato residents and also owners of Unicorn Group. Unlike some of the other comments that noted business departures, we have just moved from San Rafael into the former Office Playground space on Hamilton Drive and are delighted to be here. This industrial area has great potential. We look forward to working with other owners and managers as we grow.
Coree Cameron November 29, 2012 at 09:15 PM
Maggie - let's talk! I am currently working on a presentation, and am giving the first one tonight. I'm looking to develop a panel of experts to address concerns in our area. I'm in 384 on the boulevard - 883-5400.
Coree Cameron November 29, 2012 at 09:16 PM
Dave - I included Unicorn in part of my presentation - I would love to meet and discuss the possibility of joining forces with several other businesses in the Park!

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