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Popular Public Showgrounds On South Coast Facing Financial Crisis


The parking lot at the Earl Warren Showgrounds is busy, and there are people everywhere. The showgrounds is hosting the Senior Expo of Santa Barbara, and people are getting everything from flu shots to information on senior travel clubs.

The Showgrounds hosts everything from horse shows to emergency staging areas for firefighters during brush fires. But, the 30 acre plus facility has sort of become the community’s forgotten little gem. The state no longer subsidizes it, and to make matters worse, the six-decade-old showgrounds can’t afford badly-needed renovations.

Ben Sprague is Earl Warren’s CEO. He says to pay their bills in the last budget cycle, they had to get a $70,000 loan. It’s since been repaid, but says they may need to do another short term loan to pay the bills unless they can make some major changes.

The Showgrounds history dates back to the 1950’s, A ranching family agreed to sell more than 170 acres of land off of Las Positas Road to the 19th District Agricultural Association and the state for an equestrian and flower show facility. Part of the land went to a municipal golf course, and some was set aside for what’s now Adams Elementary School.

And, the deal includes the understanding that a facility highlighting agriculture, which would become the county’s fairgrounds, would be built in Santa Maria.

The facility opened in 1958, with additional buildings added over the next few years. And, how’s this for a forgotten fact: The showgrounds hosted a number of rock concerts. In 1967, the Doors played their three times. One concert featured The Doors, and the Grateful Dead, with tickets costing a whopping $2.00 each.

The Showgrounds has tried to be a community resource, and that may be part of the problem. It’s opened its doors to events at little or no cost. Sprague says they need to deal with the short term cash flow problem, and also come up with a long term plan.

He sees the Santa Barbara Bowl as a model. In the 1980’s, it was in such bad shape there was talk of closing it over safety issues. But, the community rallied to turn it into a concert showplace. He’s hoping to spark the same type of interest in the showgrounds. Showgrounds users say it’s a one of a kind resource for the region. It’s hosted the Santa Barbara International Orchid Show for more than a half century. Wade Ferrell is President of the Orchid Show. He says there’s virtually no other place like it in the region, with ample parking and a large exhibit hall area.

Sprague, says another key is more moneymaking events. The Showgrounds is hoping that a Haunted House it’s hosting kater this month is something which will help bolster the bottom line.

Sprague says looking longer term, the Showgrounds wants to develop a strategy which will further stabilize finances while setting up a blueprint for modernizing, and adding facilities to the showgrounds.

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