Earl Warren Showgrounds: Contributing to our traditions and our economy for more than 50 years (published in October of 2009 in the SB News Press)

I have lived in Santa Barbara for almost eight years, and while to some, this would make me a long-time resident, there are many interesting aspects of Santa Barbara that are still a mystery to me.  I am especially interested in the history of our city, and one of the largest facilities in town is Earl Warren Showgrounds, about which I knew very little.  So, I thought I would do a little homework and share what I found with you.

First, a little history… In 1931 and continuing throughout the 1940’s the 19th District Agricultural Association staged the National Horse and Flower Show in Pershing Park (at the beach next to present-day Santa Barbara City College).  Last year marked the 89th anniversary of the show.  Earl Warren Showgrounds—administered by the 19th DAA—is part of a network of fairgrounds properties governed by the Division of Fairs and Expositions in the California Department of Food and Agriculture.  A local Board of Directors appointed by the Governor manages each District within the California fair program comprised of 54 district agricultural associations, 24 county fairs, 2 citrus fairs and the Cal Expo. The Showgrounds were named after Earl Warren, who was Attorney General and Governor of California, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
In exchange for legalized racetrack wagering, a percentage of the handle—albeit a tiny one—was dedicated to promote agriculture in the form of local fairs.  Agricultural Districts throughout the state receive no taxpayer funds—only a very small percentage from a state levy on horse racing and pari-mutuel wagering.  They are otherwise self-funded entities.  
Earl Warren Showgrounds was built especially for horse shows, as the equine tradition was and remains a central component of Santa Barbara County’s Agricultural tradition. A secondary purpose is year-round community use of Showgrounds facilities.

In 1955, the District negotiated with the Parks family and the State of California to purchase 174 acres on Las Positas Road as an equestrian venue and municipal golf course, with the understanding that exhibition facilities promoting other aspects of Santa Barbara County agriculture would be built in Santa Maria.  The Parks family, who still ranch on the South Coast, sold the Las Positas property at below market value so that even as the city became more urbanized a first class public horse and flower exhibition facility would endure.  To gain support for construction of the facilities from the local community, the 19th District Agricultural Association gave ten acres for the construction of Adams Elementary School.


In 1958, a new 34-acre equestrian facility known as Earl Warren Showgrounds hosted the annual National Horse and Flower Show. The new facility was praised as being one of the best and most modern horse show venues in the country. The Exhibit Building was completed in 1959, and the Administration Building in 1961.


What makes Earl Warren Showgrounds unique among all state and county fairgrounds is that it was specifically designed and built as an equestrian Showgrounds and flower show facility.  The facilities and space layout in Santa Barbara is consequently quite different from either Ventura or Santa Maria, which were configured to showcase agricultural produce and other livestock.


Equestrian facilities at Earl Warren include a central “Dome” arena, three combination performance/warm-up arenas, and 600 permanent barn stalls.  There are two buildings, including the 13,000 sq. ft. Warren Hall (originally built to accommodate satellite wagering), devoted to interim events such as computer, antique, RV or specialty sales, as well as conference, concert and meeting venues.
Satellite wagering takes place in a 7,000 sq. ft. building formerly used for concessions. There are several smaller buildings used for catering/food services and for administration. Parking facilities include 1,000 designated parking spaces.

The Showgrounds has become an essential component of Santa Barbara’s disaster preparedness plan, providing, at no cost, the use of its grounds and facilities for the training of the Santa Barbara Police Department, county Sheriff’s Department, California Highway Patrol, county Fire Department and Probation Department. In addition, the facility acts as an emergency animal shelter in times of fire and natural disaster, such as the 1990 Painted Cave Fire, the 2004 Gaviota Fire, the 2007 Zaca Fire, the 2008 Gap Fire and the 2008 Tea Fire.


Today, the Showgrounds play host to a wide diversity of events, from the Santa Barbara Bridal Expo, flea markets and MMA cage fights, to multiple antique shows and sales, the Spirit of Nia Tour, E-Waste Recycling collection, and of course, many horse and flower shows.  This year marked the twentieth year of the Santa Barbara Fair and Expo, featuring five days of interesting events, including a large and small live stock exhibition, a huge variety of exhibitor and vendor booths, and of course all of the rides, drawing over 50,000 attendees.
According to Scott Grieve, CEO of the Showgrounds, only 4 percent of funding comes from the state, so 96 percent is generated from events.  The operating budget in 2008 was $2.6 million and about $2.7 million was generated in gross revenues.  The Showgrounds has three in-house events: The SB Fair and Expo, the National Horse show, and the National Amateur Horse Show (the “Turkey Show”; so-called because it occurs around Thanksgiving), which together account for 35 percent of total budget.  Another 45 percent comes from interim events, meaning events where the facilities are rented to outside organizations.  These include 15 horse shows, gem shows, car shows, antiques shows, etc.  The other 16 percent comes from concessions (6 percent), and about 10 percent from satellite wagering.  The most recent data shows that the Showgrounds generated almost $14 million in spending by all participants at Showgrounds events, created 170 jobs in the county, and generated $4.4 million in personal income for residents of the county.
The Showgrounds, after more than 50 years of constant use, are in need of some major renovations.  The Earl Warren Showgrounds Foundation intends to develop and implement a complete facilities renovation over time. The first phase will address the immediate need to provide space for booking prestigious horse shows and other events. The cost of this first phase is estimated to be $5 million, which will include two 125′ x 250′ regulation size covered riding arenas (one will be the completely rebuilt El Camino Ring) & one covered warm-up arena, complete with year-round drainage, top quality footing, fencing, bleacher seating, lights and sound systems, judge’s/announcer’s booths, gate booths and a large warm-up arena to support both rings. The in-line skating rink will be removed and relocated, providing necessary space for the project. Any temporary stall structures will be erected as needed for larger shows on the existing parking lot serving the Dome Arena.
If a substantial portion of the funds are raised quickly, the Board’s plan is to begin a complete renovation of the old El Camino Ring immediately following the conclusion of the National Amateur Horse Show.  The work will be completed in time for the beginning of the 2010 Horse Show season in April, and will not impede other uses of the facility during the construction period.  (Those interested in donating can contact the Foundation at: [email protected])

The contributions, both economic and cultural, that the Showgrounds has made and continues to make, to the community over the past fifty years (and counting) certainly warrant recognition.  For the equestrian community especially, the Showgrounds are an indispensable link to the past, going back to our Spanish and Mexican roots.


There are so many wonderful things about Santa Barbara that it is easy to take them for granted.  It is also easy to assume that, because of the wealth of our community, projects like the Showgrounds renovation will find the funding they need. 
In the current economic environment, nothing is assured, and it is up to each one of us to support these vital renovation projects, like the one proposed by the Earl Warren Showgrounds Foundation, so that these facilities are sustained into the future.


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