Between the presidential library in Simi Valley and the Reagan Ranch near Santa Barbara, the coastal hills and wide open skies of the Tri-Counties have become the backdrop for Ronald Reagan’s legacy.
The 40th U.S. president put a mark on the region, drawing media and visitors from around the world to the area as he made frequent trips to his Santa Ynez Mountains ranch, often called his “Western White House.”
Reagan — frequently pictured on horseback and surrounded by rolling California hills — transformed Santa Barbara and Ventura counties into tourist meccas.
“He was very classic California. He was definitely known for being kind of a cowboy,” said Shannon Turner Brooks, director of communications for the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau. “He had those images with the open land and beautiful landscapes and views that helped put this area on the map. And every time he was here, he drew national and international media attention.”
John Davies, CEO of Santa Barbara-based public relations firm Davies, said Reagan’s image as a flawless orator and a down-to-earth leader resonated with the area’s Republican party. “He was like a rock star to them. They liked who he was,” Davies said, recalling a GOP event Reagan attended at the home of the late actor and Santa Barbara developer Fess Parker. “Every Republican in those days had cowboy boots. It was the Reagan image.”
A $15M celebration
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley — Reagan’s final resting place — draws upward of 400,000 visitors a year, making it the third most-visited attraction in the Tri-Counties, among those that track attendance.
In one 18-hour period four days after Reagan’s death in June 2004, more than 40,000 visitors flooded to the library to pay their respects, marking 20 percent of the prior annual turnout. In 2005, the library drew 500,000 visitors — a 150 percent increase over prior years — and had moved into the No. 2 spot on the region’s list of attractions.
The centennial of Reagan’s birth on Feb. 6 will likely spark another surge in tourists, said Ron Bauer, a media spokesman for The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.
“[The library] certainly is a magnet to the outside world,” he said. “It’s one of the signature locations in the area and I think it will become more so [in 2011].”
The museum will unveil a $15 million renovation project on Feb. 6, kicking off the centennial year.
When visitors come, they spend money with local businesses, said Brian Gabler, Simi Valley’s assistant city manager and economic development director. “They will shop here, they will buy our gas, stay in our hotels and eat in our restaurants,” he said. “It’s definitely an economic engine.”
Brooks said the economic impact will likely reach Santa Barbara County as well. “There’s definitely some synergy between the two,” she said. “We’ve met with [the library’s] staff. There’s definitely some opportunity for reinforcing that Reagan connection.”
Reagan’s Rancho del Cielo is nestled in the Santa Ynez Mountains and served as a vacation home and frequent respite for President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan. The Young America’s Foundation, a conservative group based in Virginia with an outpost in downtown Santa Barbara, purchased the property in 1998 and maintains it today.
Kathy Brown, whose family owns the Circle Bar B Guest Ranch that borders the Reagan Ranch property, said the presidential connection continues to be a selling point.
“Years ago, when people wouldn’t know where we were located or where Santa Barbara was, I would say ‘It’s where Reagan has his Western White House.’ Then they’d know,” she said. “That did draw a lot more people to our ranch during his presidency, and it continues to do so.”
Steve Cushman, president of the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce, visited Rancho del Cielo once, and said he was struck by the modesty of the property. “I was always amazed at the simplicity of the operation. It was funny, because I could never in the world imagine Nancy Reagan in that cabin,” he laughed. “But it’s just a beautiful piece of land and it’s extremely peaceful and quiet.”
“When President Reagan came to Santa Barbara, he brought such a large number of journalists from around the world that the name Santa Barbara gained international recognition. And it’s all attributable to him being here as often as he was here,” Cushman said. “Between President Reagan and the soap opera ‘Santa Barbara,’ those two things made this area an international destination.”