By Jamie Hansen

Argus-Courier Staff

While almost everyone is still feeling pangs from the recession, a new report on Petaluma's economy shows that things are mostly improving and, on average, are better than the county as a whole.

The report, released by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, takes a look at Petaluma's "basic vital signs," from employment to home sales to SAT scores, according to the board's Executive Director, Ben Stone.

"What really stands out is that Petaluma is extremely competitive in almost every category," said Petaluma's economic development manager Ingrid Alverde. "Our schools are doing better, incomes are higher, housing, unemployment (statistics) are better...that's what I've seen in general, that Petaluma is very competitive. I think that's a tremendous advantage for bringing business to town."

For instance, a higher percent of Petaluma residents currently have jobs as compared to elsewhere in the county and the state. Petaluma's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 7.6 percent in August, lower than the Sonoma County average of 8.3 percent and the state average of 10.4 percent for the same month. That's an improvement over last August, when the unemployment rate in Petaluma was 9 percent.

Petaluma also has a healthy middle class that is only expected to grow as the economy recovers, Stone said. The median household income, currently $76,341, is projected to grow by 10 percent to $84,845 over the next five years.

The median home price in Petaluma continued to trend downward, falling 9.5 percent from 2011. But, the report noted, this is good news for new home buyers —? and indeed, home sales made a small, 2.7 percent gain from 2010 to 2011.

"I'm hearing from real estate brokers that the residential market is actually very tight," Alverde said, nothing a sign that the housing market is picking up. "They are saying they have less than a 30-day supply in the low-cost range of homes."

Housing numbers also showed an economic disparity between east and west Petaluma. Currently, the average sales price for a home in West Petaluma — $469,574 —? is higher than the county average of about $376,000 by about $93,000, while the average price for an east side home — $353,563 — is about $23,000 below the county average.

Academically, Petaluma also seemed to be doing better as judged by SAT scores: The average SAT score for a Petaluma City Schools student in the 2010-11 school year was 1619, a bit above the county average of 1611 and far above the state average of 1502.

While there are slightly more retail storefronts for rent in Petaluma than there were last year, office space is filling up relatively quickly. Office vacancy rates have declined from 41.5 percent in early 2010 to less than 30 percent in the second quarter of 2012, which Alverde called " a significant improvement."

Alverde noted that a number of local companies, such as Enphase, have recently expanded, while others, like Dharma Trading Co. and BioSearch, among many others, have recently moved to Petaluma.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@argus