The Santa Maria Fairpark has always served as “the heartbeat of our local community,” Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau Executive Director Teri Bontrager said during a virtual agriculture forum on Sept. 11.
That is, until COVID-19 hit, leaving in its wake canceled gatherings and empty event spaces.
As a result, “the lifeblood of our community,” as Bontrager called the Fairpark, is facing serious financial trouble.
In addition to holding the Santa Barbara County Fair, which employs hundreds of people and brings in 75 percent of the Fairpark’s revenue, the fairgrounds hosts the annual Santa Maria Valley Strawberry Festival, West Coast Kustoms Cruisin Nationals, and dozens of other community gatherings, such as nonprofit fundraisers, weddings, quinceañeras, and more.
Santa Maria Fairpark Foundation President Rebecca Barks told the Sun that, with the absence of these major sources of revenue this year, the Fairpark is struggling to keep the lights on—literally.
“What they’ve done is cut everything,” Barks said. “They’re down to the bare minimum people working there. They’ve turned off lights—everywhere, everything they could cut.”
Barks said that at the Fairpark’s most recent board meeting, the consensus was that if the fairgrounds can make it to January—and if the Strawberry Festival slated for April 2021 appears likely to happen—then the venue should be able to squeak by. But, she said, “if they can’t make it until January, they’re going to have to go dormant.”
She said that going dormant doesn’t necessarily mean a permanent closure, but “if they go dormant in January, they’re going to lose all their staff and need funding to restaff and rehire.”
Ultimately, the likelihood of reopening after going dormant is low, Barks said.
“It’s imperative that they keep it going,” she continued. “But the board, which is appointed by the governor, won’t keep putting money into the Fairpark if they don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
To make ends meet, the fairground is getting creative with finding ways to make revenue. The swap meet continues to happen every Friday and Saturday, Barks said, and COVID-19 testing at the facility also brought in some modest revenue.
Coming up soon, the Fairpark Foundation—the fundraising arm of the fairgrounds—will also host two pandemic-friendly events to help #SaveTheFair: a rummage sale on Oct. 3 and a drive-through barbecue at Cool Hand Luke’s restaurant on Oct. 10.
Barks said the barbecue is in collaboration with Relay for Life, an organization that raises money for the American Cancer Society. Proceeds will be split between the Fairpark and Relay for Life, with a goal to sell 2,000 meals. Barks said that interested community members or businesses can purchase tickets online or in person at Cool Hand Luke’s, and they’re also taking walk-ups on the day of the event.
Saving the Fairpark is about more than continuing to host events—it’s vital for the future of agriculture in the Santa Maria Valley, Barks said. The Strawberry Festival is a key event for local farmers to “showcase Santa Maria Valley’s main crop,” and students involved with agricultural organizations like the Future Farmers of America (FFA) and 4-H rely on the fair to show and sell their livestock.
“For our FFA, 4-H, and Grange students—they are the future of our agriculture,” Bontrager said at the panel. “When we can bring them together and their families together every year at the fair, it just solidifies in our eyes that agriculture is still very important.”
U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal, who hosted the agricultural panel where Bontrager spoke, said during the discussion that he has “signed on to a number of efforts and legislation asking that we provide support to our fairgrounds throughout the country and here on the Central Coast.”
“That legislation I’m hoping is considered as one of the many items with the upcoming [federal] package that hopefully will be negotiated for more economic COVID relief for our area,” he said.