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.”
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