With the cancellation this year of major events such as the Santa Maria Valley Strawberry Festival and the Santa Barbara County Fair, COVID-19 has taken a serious toll on the financial health of Santa Maria Fairpark that could ultimately lead to its demise.
“Those two events bring in the lion’s share of revenue,” said Shelly Cone, who was under contract to promote the County Fair and Strawberry Festival until July 31. “The cancellation of those two events alone have adversely affected the Fairpark.”
The Fairpark’s two biggest revenue producers — the Strawberry Festival drew about 60,000 visitors a year, and the Santa Barbara County Fair brought in about 150,000 people annually.
Kevin Merrill, a member of the Fairpark board of directors, couldn’t say how much revenue was lost with those two events, but he agreed it was considerable.
“You know, we really got hit with a double whammy,” Merrill said Monday. “If you lose those two things, it’s awfully hard to keep going. … We’ve tried doing drive-in things and drive-by things. But it’s not good, it’s not good. If we can’t do anything by October, we’re going to have trouble staying in business.
“But we’re one of the lucky ones that had some money,” he added. “There are some fair parks that are already out of business. We have enough [funds] to hang on until September or October.”
The Fairpark board is planning to hold some kind of new festival in the fall, but if and when that comes about will depend on whether we’re winning the battle against the pandemic and the state eases restrictions on social gatherings.
“People have been cooped up so long, we think they’ll want to get out and have some fun again,” Merrill said, noting no date has been set and no details have been finalized for the new festival, although directors want to do something with a harvest theme and a carnival.
“Really, we’re taking it day by day,” he continued. “We’ll see what we can do. … We’re really trying to hang on until we can have another Strawberry Festival and get some revenue going.”
If the 37th District Agricultural Association does go bankrupt, the Fairpark property will revert to the state of California, which owns the land, an association spokesman said.
Just what the state would do with it is anyone’s guess, and some have speculated it might become a huge affordable housing project. But the parcel is zoned for public facilities, so a switch to high-density housing would require a zoning change at the very least.
Cancellation of the Santa Barbara County Fair was not only a loss for the Fairpark but also a big loss for the community, Merrill said.
“It’s a great thing for the community, for the kids,” he said. “It’s good for families.”
The 37th District Agricultural Association and the Fairpark managed to salvage one of the County Fair’s most important youth activities — the 4-H and FFA livestock auctions — by conducting them online.
“That was really a lot of work to put that together in such a short time,” Merrill said. “But the kids went out and rounded up buyers, and people really stepped up and helped them with that.”
Although the Fairpark is pulling in a little revenue from Santa Barbara County for hosting COVID-19 testing, it’s not much, he said.
Other recurring events that have called the Fairpark home for years and brought a regular cash flow were also canceled, from community benefit events like the Veterans Stand Down to car shows like the West Coast Kustoms Cruisin’ Nationals.
Losing those kind of events also hurt the community, Fairpark officials noted.
Richard Persons, who had served as the Fairpark’s chief executive officer for five years, retired June 30 partly to help the operation financially, Merrill said.
“He retired partially due to the coronavirus situation,” he said. “We were trying to save money, and he was a few years away from retirement anyway. … We were sorry to lose Rich, but he’s still in the area and will probably help us out with some things.”
Deputy Manager Autumn Acquistapace was appointed interim CEO by the board of directors July 17, taking over the day-to-day operation of the facility in addition to her other duties handling events and facility rentals.
Acquistapace has worked in various administrative capacities with the state of California for more than 20 years, moving to Santa Maria after graduating from college in 2007 and marrying husband Bobby, with whom she has two boys.
She was named the Fairpark’s deputy manager in December 2017 after spending eight years as event coordinator.
“She’s been here a long time,” Merrill said. “She knows the community. She’ll do a good job.”
But she does have her work cut out for her, trying to maintain the facilities, retain the staff and keep the lights on with virtually no revenue.
Merrill said if people value the Fairpark, the County Fair, the Strawberry Festival and all the other myriad special events that take place there, they should write their state legislators and urge them to help keep the organization afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The fairground is a real asset to the community,” he said.