Open Meeting on the Future of Earl Warren Showgrounds

Event Space Looks for Public Input on What the Community Wants to See Take Place

2019 Santa Barbara Fair & Expo Preview at the Earl Warren Showgrounds | Credit: Harvest Keeney

The parking lots and arenas at Earl Warren Showgrounds have customarily held horse and flower shows and carnival rides, but the grounds and buildings can also be rented for weddings, quinceañeras, concerts, and dances. To find out what else could be or should be happening at Earl Warren, a public meeting takes place on Wednesday at 5 p.m. at the showgrounds’ administration building at 3400 Calle Real in Santa Barbara.

Thirty-four acres big, the showgrounds has three large, indoor spaces it rents — the domed Exhibit Building, Earl’s Place, and Warren Hall, whose roof will soon be fixed — as well as the big covered arena in the center, and a hockey rink and an open arena on the western side of the property. About half the property is devoted to animal barns and horse corrals, and the Santa Barbara National Horse Show has taken place there for the past 100 years. Other historic events at the showgrounds, which is owned by California’s 19th District Agricultural Association, include performances by the Doors, the Grateful Dead, and Led Zeppelin, said showgrounds CEO Ben Sprague.

Credit: Courtesy

From the heyday of big acts playing the showgrounds, it has become more of a dusty parking lot at times. That’s what they hope to fix, said board president Tory Milazzo. “Now that operations are ‘stabilized,'” Milazzo said, “we’re really in a place to look around and prioritize what we want to invest in, and for that, we need community input.”

Replacing the roof on Warren Hall will be a $2 million project, Milazzo noted, and all the facilities needed “tremendous investment.” Over the past several years, “The equestrian community really rallied,” he said, and quietly donated close to $1 million for the upkeep and maintenance of the horse facilities to ensure events took place safely. Milazzo acknowledged equestrian events were an important, historical part of Earl Warren Showgrounds: “I definitely view that continuing as a primary use of the facility,” he said.

Sprague recalled the monster truck shows he saw at the showgrounds while growing up in Santa Barbara, adding that the place offers an enormous breadth of uses. Wednesday’s would be the first of what will be regular monthly meetings with all the communities that Earl Warren serves. “We’re trying to open the doors, pop the hood, and say, ‘Okay, guys, what’s your favorite part? What do you want to see?'” he said of the conversation he hopes will result.

The first meeting is set for a weekday evening, but Sprague said it was likely they’d shift meeting times around in order to accommodate more people’s schedules. It will not be a full Board of Directors meeting, so public discussions will be possible. Despite COVID, the showgrounds as an open-air facility managed to stay in the black, in part by a focus on profitable events, said Sprague, and he’s looking for operations that attract people from all parts of town. “Rental space for anything in Santa Barbara is at a premium, and that’s one thing we have a lot of.”

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