Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

The 19th District Agricultural Association Board of Directors meeting to discuss the future of Earl Warren Showgrounds on Thursday may have set a record for the number of times the words “equestrian” and “agricultural” were said in the span of an hour. These words are firmly rooted in the showgrounds’ past but are notably absent from its new mission statement that was adopted by the board on March 23 and has been a source of contention.

The 34-acre venue, as it stands, is underutilized and underfunded, despite touting the county’s largest indoor facility and parking lot. The board has been looking to expand its uses beyond the carnivals, horse shows, COVID-19 and emergency services, and casual parking-lot driving lessons for local teenagers. Their efforts, which began in 2016, have resulted in a new mission statement that makes no mention of horses or any animal and agricultural events. 

The showground’s history, which dates back to the 1950s, was built to support equestrian and agricultural activities and has been the location of many prestigious horse shows, rodeos, dog and cat exhibitions, and agricultural displays throughout the decades.

The new mission statement reads, “The Earl Warren Showgrounds is a multi-use community event and emergency resiliency center serving the existing and changing needs of Santa Barbara’s culture, history, and community.” Previously, it was first and foremost identified as a self-supporting entity “that maintains a first-class equine facility” and “promotes and supports agricultural resources.”  

“We’re trying to reset the clock, so that we can be open for business for the entire community, while continuing to serve in the emergency response role that we do for our region,” said board president Salvatore Milazzo. “We have had a failing facility that, only until conditions became so unsafe, did community members come forward to try to remedy the situation.”

More than 500 letters were written to the board vying for or against the change. Those in favor of the change mentioned many recreational activities which could be held at a redesigned showground, such as pickleball and soccer.

Others were less enthusiastic. “Since I’m 85 years old, I watched Earl Warren go through a lot of changes,” boardmember Teresa McWilliams said in opposing the change, but this is the “one place in the county” to have horse and dog shows and where animals can be safely evacuated during natural disasters. “Why would we want to change what was once one of the great horse and animal event centers in Santa Barbara,” she asked, “into a kind of a third-rate horse facility?”

Director Mary Rose proposed a modification that could have been a compromise. She suggested keeping the previous statement’s referral to the showgrounds as a “financially self-supporting entity” and added to the new statement that the venue “honors our equestrian and agricultural history and heritage.”

But despite these objections, the new mission statement as proposed passed by a 6-3 vote; those who voted against it were boardmembers McWilliams, Rose, and Miguel Avila.

Earl Warren Showgrounds CEO Ben Sprague reminded the meeting that the facility’s namesake, Earl Warren, former California governor and Supreme Court Justice, wrote the Brown v. Board of Education opinion that desegregated public schools. “There is no move here to remove any historic uses; there is simply a move to embrace all possible uses,” Sprague said. “I’m very proud of the work that this board has done on taking a hard look at what this community asset is.”


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