Santa Barbara Fiesta Stock Horse Show & Rodeo 2018 at the Earl Warren Showgrounds. | Credit: Lauren Maeve Photography

Earl Warren Showgrounds is on the search for a financial savior, but exactly who or what that will be is still up for debate. The showgrounds’ Board of Directors unanimously voted Thursday night to move forward with exploring the first and only plan pitched to them so far — upgraded equestrian facilities.

The meeting was flooded by a sea of cowboy hats. Nearly all in attendance were from the local equestrian community, which has long lamented that the showgrounds’ equestrian facilities are dilapidated. Members from the “Equestrian Community Group” presented their proposal to both fix the equestrian facilities and bring additional funding to the showgrounds at 3400 Calle Real.

“We have finally got our foot through the door,” said Karen Christensen, the local equestrian who drafted the plan. “There was a lot of skepticism from the board in the past. This is finally our chance.”

Christensen has a background in geology but said she also has extensive planning experience. She presented phase one of her plan on Thursday, which aims to rebuild three competition arenas and update all United States Equestrian Federation–required warmup arenas. The total estimated cost is between $450,000 and $650,000, which Christensen said would be paid for entirely by donors.

The conditions under which the donors would fund the project are the dilemma. Christensen’s phase one would only be funded by donors so long as a memorandum of understanding is passed stating the showgrounds will always give Santa Barbara National Horse Show events first use, and give to other multi-use activities on a first-come, first-served basis. It also requires that Earl Warren Showgrounds provide regular maintenance of the arenas, which is a big ask for a nonprofit strapped for cash. 

The equestrian facilities take up the majority of the land at Earl Warren Showgrounds, but the horse shows bring in some of the smallest amount of revenue. The board is tasked with overseeing the entire showgrounds while still meeting the needs of the equestrian community, which has a louder voice than most stakeholders.

“Last night was a display of how the equestrian community deeply cares about this,” said Board President Michael Medel. “They have the means and background to organize and be the most vocal. I hope the board can have a chance to hear other proposals, too.”

The tension between the equestrian community and anyone with outside interests lies beneath the surface. At public comment, a handful of speakers proposed the grounds be used as a sports facility. Though non-equestrians were the minority at the meeting, they represent the majority in the surrounding community.

“We should be able to have a space that is used as a soccer field all day one day, and then a concert the next day,” Medel said. “We are a multi-use facility.” Many others in the community apparently either aren’t aware that they can submit a plan to the showgrounds or don’t have the time and resources to create one, so the only plan being proposed is Christensen’s. 

“There are plenty of sports organizations who would use this facility,” said Dave Wilcox, who was representing the Santa Barbara Soccer Club. Wilcox was joined by Sep Wolf, who is also on the Santa Barbara Soccer Club Board.

“We are dying for sports facilities in this town,” Wolf said. “We are looking for ways to enhance revenue, but also what is the best community benefit. We could easily fill this place with community members that have kids. Soccer, volleyball, football, anything. I don’t want to do away with the equestrian facilities, but there’s a lot of dead space to fill here.”

The board will meet again at its December 12 meeting, where it will revisit Christensen’s plan to upgrade the equestrian facilities, but the board is still open to accepting new plans and ideas. 

“We really want feedback from the community at large,” said CEO Ben Sprague. “This is a run-down facility that hasn’t been looked at as a whole in a very long time, so we are absolutely open to anyone else with plans.”


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