Docks, airport terminals, warehouses and government agencies defined Oakland's economy for decades, but a mix of digital upstarts and fledgling green companies has emerged as a new force in the city.

This shift comes at a critical time. Billionaire investor Carl Icahn has pushed for a sale or breakup that threatens the independence of Oakland's signature company, household products maker Clorox.

Just a few years ago, that prospect would have wrought devastation on the economy of the East Bay's largest city. Clorox employs 1,500 in Oakland -- although it is moving 500 to 700 workers to Pleasanton -- and a corporate takeover could put those jobs at risk.

Oakland also risks losing the head offices of the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which may shift to San Francisco.

Today, those blows, while significant, would be softened because of the jobs being created by Oakland's "new economy" companies.

Pandora Media, BrightSource Energy, Sungevity, iParadigms, First Solar, Lucid Design Group and Livescribe are among the cutting-edge companies that have large operations in Oakland, all of which have headquarters in the city except for First Solar. Most have significantly expanded their operations in the city in the last year or so.

"Oakland's biggest challenge, since forever, has been perception," said Ken Meyersieck, a senior vice president with Colliers International, a commercial realty firm. "The city is starting to overcome that perception. The fundamentals of Oakland are awesome. The Pandoras of the world recognize that and have put their roots down in Oakland."

Oakland city officials have made a strong push to encourage companies similar to these to set up shop in town, Mayor Jean Quan said.

"Our central location, well-educated workforce, great weather, and great vibe attracts the kinds of workers that today's businesses are seeking," she said.

These companies are also starting to change the perception of Oakland, long in the shadow of San Francisco and San Jose.

Executives with the new economy companies that have planted themselves in the city tout the benefits of the community. Operating costs, such as rents, are lower in Oakland than in San Francisco, the Peninsula or Santa Clara County. They also cite the lifestyle and cultural amenities.

Several of the companies are in or near the city's Uptown district, an eclectic mix of entertainment venues that includes trendy restaurants, art galleries, nightclubs, and live and film performances at the Paramount Theatre and Fox Theater.

Sprinkled through the neighborhood are new high-density residential complexes, home to many of the younger workers at these firms. A push by the administration of former Mayor Jerry Brown for 10,000 residential units has extended the hours and days when downtown and other parts of Oakland are alive with commerce.

"Historically, Oakland was a 9-to-5 city," Meyersieck said. "People would go to work for the state, feds, city, county, school, then they would hop back on BART and go home. Now, people live, work and play in the same place, Oakland."

That access to night life appeals to young employees at the tech and energy firms in town, said Keely Wachs, a spokesman for BrightSource Energy, a solar company.

"We all work pretty hard," Wachs said. "For a lot of our younger employees, they love to catch shows at the Fox or Paramount theaters. When we go out for team dinners or team lunches, we have an incredible selection of world-class restaurants nearby."

One of the most enthusiastic boosters of Oakland is Joe Kennedy, chief executive officer of Pandora Media, the Internet radio service that just launched a successful initial public offering.

"We are huge supporters of Oakland," he said. "Our employees love working here. We can't imagine a better place to be."

Kennedy serves as an unofficial ambassador for the city. He promotes Oakland's benefits when talking to employees or executives with other digital technology or social media companies elsewhere. His goal: Coax more emerging technology companies to shift their operations there.

"Many new companies have moved here," Kennedy said. "I'm optimistic we can get more. We will see more young, cool companies arriving in Oakland."

It's also a workforce that increasingly is starting to look like those that have emerged in digital hubs such as Silicon Valley and San Francisco.

"We have a young, smart technical worker base moving into the city," said Walter Cohen, director of Oakland's Community and Economic Development Agency. "Companies like the labor pool."

That could create a virtuous circle for the city, said Joseph Haraburda, president of Oakland's Chamber of Commerce.

"Any new tech or green-tech company that comes to Oakland energizes other companies to do the same," he said.

The access to BART downtown means new economy companies located in Oakland are able to dangle job offers from people not just in the East Bay.

"BART helps make Oakland a great place to recruit talent," said Chris Herrick, a spokesman for software firm iParadigms. "We can tap into the talent not only on the Peninsula and San Francisco, but all over the East Bay."

In contrast to much of the economy, these companies are hiring. Sungevity, for instance, plans to hire 200 to 300 workers by the end of the year, primarily in the Bay Area. The company, located in Jack London Square, has about 200 employees.

Local business leaders also like the homegrown nature of the new companies in Oakland. They think these companies won't readily uproot themselves.

"They started here, they are growing here, they are going to stay here," Meyersieck said. "And they are hiring people."

Contact George Avalos at 925-977-8477.

open for business
A number of cutting-edge companies in the high-tech or green-tech sector have planted roots in Oakland. Many say they are hiring. Here are a few examples:
  • Sungevity has about 200 employees and intends to add 200 to 300 more, most of them in Oakland.
  • Pandora Media has about
    400 employees, most of them
    in Oakland.
  • BrightSource Energy has
    100 employees and wants to hire 40, including 11 in Oakland.
  • iParadigms has about
    100 employees.
  • First Solar has 60 employees.