Photo by Brooke Holland, Noozhawk

By Brooke Holland

Noozhawk Staff Writer

Ben Sprague, CEO of Earl Warren Showgrounds, wants the struggling Santa Barbara multiuse community event center to thrive.

But before that, he acknowledges, it must survive.

“We have to make changes,” he said, adding, “If we don’t make changes, it’s going to become harder and harder to be who we are.” 

A cash-flow projection is forecasting that the 34-acre showgrounds complex will run out of money by November or December unless significant change occurs to remain financially viable.

“A cash-flow projection for the year showed we are going to be out of money by the end of 2019,” Sprague told Noozhawk. “We would have to get an operational loan again for the second year in a row.”

He described the showgrounds’ financial state as “dire,” adding, “We are negative and can’t afford to pay for our own expenses as we are operating the way we are.”

Located at 3400 Calle Real, the state-owned facility took out a line of credit to cover payroll through last April. Officials asked for and received a yearlong extension on two State of California loans — totaling about $300,000 — that were due this year.

The loans helped pay for solar panels and wastewater infrastructure.

Sprague said he’s applying to have the loans deferred again.

Marshal Miller, chairman of the showgrounds’ four-member finance committee, strongly voiced his concerns at last week’s board meeting of the 19th District Agricultural Association, which oversees operations at the showgrounds. The finance committee met before the full board convened.  

“We have spent all the money we have in reserve on operating costs over the last several years,” Miller said. “We had poor habits from our former CEO, so we are in a situation now that we have loans by the State of California … but we are not breaking even on operations.”

At its May meeting, the showgrounds finance committee had requested that the board adopt higher rates for the equestrian center. Sprague said the board approved the increases on an 8-1 vote.

At their Sept. 26 meeting, the equestrian committee requested that the higher rates be reconsidered, but the rollback idea failed to pass.  

The price hike means the Santa Barbara County Riding Club is going from $8,000 to $18,000 in expense, said Diane Isaacson, chief financial officer and vice president of the Earl Warren Showgrounds Foundation.

Miller said he “wants the horse community” to remain at Earl Warren.

“I get nobody likes the guy who says ‘no, we have to pay more,’” he continued. “It’s going to be a long, grinding process to get this facility restored.”

The association’s nine board members are appointed by the governor, and the board meets monthly.

Board president Michael Medel received an excused absence because he was out of the country during Thursday’s hours-long meeting.

To accommodate the large crowd, the finance and board meetings were moved to Earl’s Place at the showgrounds from the administration building conference room.

About 40 people, the majority with deep roots in the equestrian community, were in attendance at both meetings.

During public comment, those who have raised and trained horses for decades described the showgrounds as a “jewel in the city,” as well as “instrumental” and the “beating heart in the community.”

Others said physical change is required to “get this place out of the hole,” and described Earl Warren as “a maintenance nightmare” and “in need of a business plan.”

The equestrian center rates have not been raised in “a long time,” according to Sprague, who said after the meeting that he wants equestrian events to continue at the showgrounds.

Evie Sweeney said she is a representative of the Santa Ynez Valley Equestrian Association, the Region Two Arabian Horse Association and the national Arabian Horse Association in Aurora, Colo.

“Earl Warren is more than an arena to us,” she said during her two-minute public comment.

Across the country, Sweeney said, the Arabian horse community is expressing “concern” that Earl Warren Showgrounds’ horse facilities are at risk. She added that the members are willing to “do whatever we can to partner” and help Earl Warren succeed.

“It has been the backdrop for some of our breed’s most significant horse shows and greatest moments,” Sweeney said. “Our entire United States community, and that’s no overstatement, is deeply concerned right now because it feels a strong allegiance and a loyalty to the showgrounds, perhaps more so than any other show facility in the country, including our national shows.”

Gina Von der Burg recited part of the showgrounds’ mission statement, which mentions the organization is an entity preserving and maintaining a first-class equine facility.

“This is not just your goal,” she told board members during public comment. “This is the community goal.”

Von der Burg said people are “standing and ready to jump in and help” save Earl Warren. Sponsors are “ready to go,” she added, “but nobody is willing to bring those sponsors forward until we see there are solid organization and solid sustainable plans.”

Professional horse trainer Michael Damianos expressed his concerns during public comment. The Ojai resident said he’s been working in the horse business for more than 30 years, serving as the former president of the Santa Barbara County Riding Club and both a licensed judge and horse show host.

“I don’t think this facility is the problem and I don’t think horse people have a lack of interest,” he said. “I think the problem is the mission statement and the vision has not been executed.

“To be honest, it has been executed poorly,” he continued, adding, “some people have had the best efforts in trying, but it hasn’t worked out.”

Earl Warren Showgrounds was built in the late 1950s and was first created as the site of the Santa Barbara National Horse & Flower Show. It produces the annual Santa Barbara Fair & Expo, the Fiesta Stock Horse Show & Rodeo, the Santa Barbara National Horse Show and other community events.

The outdoor and indoor facilities are used for hosting both for-profit and nonprofit, public and private events.

The showgrounds also is a vital part of the area’s emergency response network. It served as a family assistance center in the aftermath of the Conception dive boat disaster. Well-attended public-safety news conferences frequently are held at the property and emergency personnel used it as a staging area during the 2017 Thomas Fire and in the aftermath of last year’s Montecito flash flooding and debris flows.

In previous years, it was “hit or miss” if the showgrounds would charge for use, Sprague said.

When the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management declares a situation an official emergency, “they do pay for the space they use,” Sprague said, but they don’t pay for damage or if another scheduled event is displaced.

First responders have used the parking lot for motorcycle drills, he said, adding “We still give a ton away.”

Sprague was introduced as CEO in January.

After the Santa Barbara Fair & Expo in April, Sprague said he took it upon himself to “dive immediately” into the financial situation. He spent weeks with financial experts to thoroughly review the showgrounds’ finances and create a cash-flow forecast for the year.

The board is “committed” to strategic planning, he said. Sprague has presented financial reports and he offered “smaller solutions.”

He is working toward creating a master plan for the venue and individual business plans.

Meanwhile, the showgrounds will fundraise and make “changes to our business plan,” Sprague said, adding, “There is lots of support out there” and “there are ways to support and we need the community now, more than ever, to buy into us.”

 Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at