Surfing on a financial recovery, Earl Warren Showgrounds is considering new uses | Local News

After years of financial difficulties, Santa Barbara’s Earl Warren Show Fields trots towards better times.

“We’re in the best position we’ve had in over 25 years,” Ben Sprague, CEO of the fairgrounds, told Noozhawk. “We’ve gone from a place a few years ago where we were $100,000 in the hole to now we have over $2 million in the bank.”

The show ground facility sits on 35 acres in the 19th Agricultural District at 3400 Calle Real at the intersection of Las Positas Road. It hosts an annual fair, horse shows, the Horse show and rodeo Fiesta Stock, Haunt at the fairgroundsand events inside the Exhibition building and Warren Room and in the parking lot.

The property also rents overnight parking for RVs and serves as an evacuation site during forest fires and other emergencies.

What it hasn’t been, however, is a money-making organization, and sometimes it’s a money-losing organization.

Built as a facility for horse and flower shows, the needs of the community have changed, and Sprague and the Board of Earl Warren Showgrounds are trying to reinvent the role it should play in the community.

The public establishment contracted a line of credit to cover the payroll in 2019. Civil servants also received a one-year extension that year in two state of california loans — totaling approximately $300,000, which were due this year. Without the line of credit, the resort would have run out of money that year.

The COVID-19 shutdowns gave Sprague and the organization an opportunity to hit the reset button and “watch our costs carefully.”

Changes include an arena sports league featuring hockey, futsal, lacrosse, skating, and pickle ball. The exhibition center has also improved its kitchen services and increased the rental price of its commercial kitchens.

Fairgrounds received state aid and linked coronavirus Paycheck Protection Program loan, which helped stabilize her finances. The Santa Barbara Fair and Exposition also returned in 2021 and 2022, and profits were the best in the fair’s history, Sprague said.

Now, Sprague and the board are looking to the public to create a conversation about future uses for the sprawling property to make it profitable over the long term and meet the needs of the community.

There is talk of a sports facility for young people, a swimming pool, public meeting spaces and a range of other ideas suggested by the public.

“We have an opportunity to say ‘let’s make a plan,'” Sprague said. “Let’s talk about the next five and 20 years.”

The fairground holds monthly public meetings outside its administration building to hear ideas.

“The idea is to have real conversations about who we serve and how,” Sprague said. “We will always serve our historic uses, and we also want to embrace the future in terms of how we can properly serve our community.”

Among the questions regarding future use is the role of riding and the riding community, as most riding facilities sit unused for most of the year. The fairgrounds were originally established to serve as a permanent venue for the Santa Barbara National Horse & Flower Show, and to attract and support other equestrian and agricultural events.

To win the City of Santa Barbara support for the construction of the fairgrounds, the agricultural district donated 82 acres to the city for the adjacent municipal golf course, the Golf Santa Barbaraand 10 acres for the construction of Adams School.

The Kramer Arena and Equestrian Center was completed in 1958, the exhibition building was completed the following year, and the administration building was added in 1961, according to the fairgrounds website.

The exhibition center houses the Santa Barbara National Horse Show and other equestrian events. The National Horse Show multi-breed events run July 6-9 with Hunters & Jumpers July 13-17.

“We believe it is essential to maintain and improve the show grounds and develop them as a self-contained, multi-use equestrian facility,” said Kathy O’Connor, chair of the board of directors of Santa Barbara Horse Assistance and Evacuationand board member Karen Christensen said in a statement to Noozhawk.

“Horse shows and other equestrian/agricultural events can serve multiple purposes while allowing for the many non-equestrian uses. They provide an opportunity for the diverse communities of our county to be exposed to and appreciate horses and the more rural side of our county, while providing horse enthusiasts with the beautiful historic show venue for which the show grounds were initially given.

O’Connor and Christensen added that improving and increasing the number of equestrian events can generate more revenue for the entire facility.

Lynne Sherman, a volunteer with the nonprofit Horse Aid, said there was growing pressure on the equestrian community to generate more revenue to support the size and scope of horse-related facilities. horses.

“The equestrian community felt there was a continued throttling of energy and resurgences in shows,” she said.

“That struggle is one of the things that fuels some of the difficulties,” she added, citing an example of “‘You can have shows, but not too many, and not too big, but you have to bring enough show money in order to have a financial contribution here.

Tory Milazzo, chairman of the board of Earl Warren Showgrounds, said he wanted the facility to be a resource for the entire South Coast.

“We have a significant equestrian heritage and the facility serves as an essential location during emergency response,” he explained. “Our community engagement process and a long-term strategic plan are critical to the success of the fairgrounds…

“The key role of our Board of Directors is to guide the planning process and manage the show grounds as a valuable asset to our stakeholders.”

– Noozhawk writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Login with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Clyde P. Johnson