Rocklin’s economy improving

By: Jon Brines, Placer Herald correspondent
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Rocklin’s unemployment rate is down and sales tax is up amid the city’s stimulus measures.

“Things are going good,” said Nicole Felix, a Rocklin business owner.
In 2010, with the recession in full swing, Felix took a gamble and opened OMG! Frozen Yogurt in the Blue Oaks Center, betting the movie theater would be good for business. She was right.
“The new things that have come into the Blue Oaks Town Center create a good amount of traffic for the small businesses,” Felix said.
At one time struggling to keep employees, this year Felix has expanded her product line to include smoothies and invested in a mobile operation for event catering. Like Felix, the rest of Rocklin is starting to feel a recovery.
Rocklin continues to have one of the lowest unemployment rates in Placer County at 6.3 percent. Only Loomis, at 5.2 percent, and Granite Bay, at 6.1 percent have better rates, according to the State Department of Economic Development. The county rate is a full two points higher.
Mayor Brett Storey said growth is better seen in sales tax growth.
“I look more at the sales tax increases, as it is a better measure of actual levelized progress than unemployment,” Storey explained. “Most of our business is retail, and therefore seasonalized employment often skews the month-to-month number, but a lowering trend is always good.”
Rocklin’s April-through-June sales were 1.1 percent higher than the same quarter one year ago. And a spike in January-through-March sales was 12 percent higher than the same quarter one year ago.
“This still means sales tax is increasing, it just didn’t happen at the extraordinary rate of 12 percent,” said Karen Garner, Rocklin’s public affairs and economic growth manager. “Overall, the city is experiencing continued steady increases.”
Local leasing companies report that interest rises with vacated storefronts and undeveloped properties, for instance, Walmart going into the Albertsons building and Grocery Outlet now open in the old Office Depot location in Blue Oaks Center. 
The city also announced  a new Mongolian BBQ going in at a vacant location at 4210 Rocklin Road, a dinner theater and deli cafe going into 4147 Rocklin Road across from Finn Hall and a 7-Eleven going in at the corner of Blue Oaks and Lonetree boulevards.
“We are seeing some storefronts be occupied and many more are being looked at for either expansion or new operations,” Storey said. “We hope the trend continues in Rocklin and will do what is necessary to not only bring the business back, but keep it long-term.”
One challenging spot continues to be office space.
“Rocklin has the highest office vacancy rate in the region at over 40 percent, but we also have some of the best quality office products and a very desirable location,” Garner said.
Garner said office property owners are offering very competitive lease rates and other incentives to attract tenants.
“Rocklin’s economy continues to show signs of improvement,” she said. “We are seeing increased interest and activity in both commercial and residential properties.”
When it comes to new building permits, Rocklin is trending up. So far this year the city has had 43 building permits for commercial/tenant im-provements, which is the most since 2008 (56) and nearly double from last year (26).
 “We are hearing from traditional developers that we have not heard from in a long time, as well as some new quality businesspeople who want to build in the area,” Storey said. “Our staff has been working hard to make sure their needs are accommodated.”
Garner is helping the city develop a Community Investment Plan that will look at ways the city can encourage economic growth.
“This plan will look at a variety of elements and tools to assist existing businesses, attract new business, effectively market Rocklin and better meet the needs of business customers,” she said.
The plan will call for input from the business community, the Rocklin Area Chamber of Commerce and residents to help develop a successful strategy.
For stimulus, the city relaxed a sign ordinance, offered grants to update business facades and created a special business zone downtown. 
In August, Rocklin approved a new Business Attraction Retention and Revitalization Overlay (BARRO) Zone targeting commercial properties fronting Pacific Street and Rocklin Road in the historic district, with some minor extensions northwest on Sunset Boulevard from Pacific Street to South Whitney.
It provides flexible development standards, streamlined approval processes and reduced application fees for projects within BARRO Zone boundaries.
“The city has also reduced business license fees and will consider further changes in the future to reduce the cost of doing business in Rocklin,” Garner said.
The city just doled out nearly $50,000 to downtown businesses for exterior facelifts through the Central Rocklin Area Façade, Revitalization & Accessibility Grant Program. Barber Bill’s Commercial Center, the Creekside Counseling building, Sunset Whitney Veterinarian Hospital, Midas Commercial Center and the Placer Herald and Icing on the Cupcake Buildings on Pacific Street were all grant recipients. 
The City Council will have to decide if the pilot program will continue next fiscal year.
Rocklin unemployment rate
September 2012: 6.3 percent
August 2012: 6.7 percent
June 2012: 6.9 percent
September 2011: 7.6 percent
Source: Employment Development Department