Equine Evac finishes phase one of Earl Warren renovations
The horse shows that once made Earl Warren Showgrounds a Central Coast destination for equestrian competition are returning after the start of renovations.
Equine Evac, a nonprofit that transports livestock to safety in times of natural disaster, is leading a restoration of the facilities.
Phase one is complete and includes new fencing and footing in the main arena, new footing in the stadium and the beginning of a rough stock (cattle, pigs, sheep) arena. New restrooms and a speaker system will benefit spectators when they’re allowed again. (Currently during the pandemic, the horse shows are permitted without spectators.)
“It was in its day one of the finest facilities in the country, actually,” project director Karen Christensen told the News-Press. “At this point, it fits the bill for a boutique show facility.”
Ms. Christensen is involved in many equestrian organizations in the region. When one of her shows got fined for being held on unsafe footings at Earl Warren, she felt responsible to help fix it.
She didn’t think Earl Warren’s board could tackle the project. The venue is state property but doesn’t receive government funding.
She figured a nonprofit would be the best venue, and she was well acquainted with Equine Evac. So she called Equine Evac to rescue the arena.
Equine Evac knew the problems facing the showgrounds. For years, the board had been talking about it.
“Our mission is to take care of the large animals. But when the facility has not been kept up, things are falling apart,” said Kathy O’Connor, Equine Evac president.
During the Thomas Fire, Equine Evac housed 1,300 animals safely on site — including reindeer from the Santa Barbara Zoo. But it was apparent that the facility needed help.
“The evacuation is an absolutely critical need for the community,” Ms. Christensen said. “And preserving this place as self-sustaining is critical to the community.”
The team hopes the profits from hosting shows and community events will keep Earl Warren Showgrounds in good financial shape for the community.
Private donations funded the $800,000 project alongside generous discounts and volunteer hours from construction companies. Equine Evac plans to spruce up the 12 barns on site in phase two when it receives more donations.
“A lot of people in this community have those memories of showing their horses here and coming out here,” Ms. O’Connor said. “And it’s a wonderful opportunity for them to see something they’ve loved and grown up with really taken care of and not abused and not just left to fall to ruin.”
When digging two feet of yellow sand out from the stadium, team members discovered old pipes and drainage systems. They also found a busted sewer line beneath the arena.
Repairing the plumbing was costly, but Equine Evac wanted to do everything pristinely. Because the stadium frequently flooded in rain, the organization’s members installed French drains throughout the area.
Soon after they finished the arena, five shows scheduled events. Without the renovations, Ms. Christensen predicted the venue would only get one show in 2020.
“We instantly had five shows come in at the last minute, which is really hard to do. Your shows usually take a year to plan,” she said. “So five shows were held in September, October, November and brought in quite a bit of money.”
They hope the revenue generated can spur on Earl Warren Showgrounds to maintain the property, generate more events and increase local tourism.
“We think it helps that we’re taking an active part in refurbishing this area. It makes it not as scary to try and get people to work on the other buildings,” Ronda Hathaway, Equine Evac vice president, said.
They see potential beyond equestrian events.
“But it isn’t just about rich horse people, you know,” Ms. Christensen said. “There’s all sorts of groups that can use this once it’s alive again.”
One of Earl Warren Showgrounds’ uses is aiding the community in times of disaster. It has served as a COVID-19 testing site, a family assistance center after the Conception incident and, of course, an evacuation center for the region’s livestock.
During the Thomas Fire, animals from other counties came to Santa Barbara and were taken in by Equine Evac. It’s the only large facility for shows on the Central Coast, said Ms. Christensen.
Another show is coming up soon, and Equine Evac is prepping the space for its visitors.
To donate, send a check to Santa Barbara Equine Assistance and Evacuation Team Inc. with “Showgrounds Equestrian Renovation Fund” in the memo line to P.O. Box 60535, Santa Barbara 93160. Or use Venmo to send money to “SBEquine-Evac Team” with the description “SERF.”
More information is available at sbequineevac.org/showgrounds_equestrian_restoration_project and on Facebook at facebook.com/savingearlwarren.