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latimes.com

Tet Festival organizers hope to lure more crowds to new venue

After negotiations with Garden Grove officials end, the celebration finds new home at the O.C. fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.

By Anh Do

10:35 PM PST, December 27, 2013

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Organizers of the largest Tet Festival in the U.S. — an event long linked with Garden Grove — are not only moving the event, but also undertaking a robust marketing campaign in hopes of luring more immigrants and vendors to the festival's new home at the Orange County fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.

For weeks, a team led by Nina Tran, president of the Union of Vietnamese Students Assns., which organizes the festival, scoured neighboring cities for a replacement venue after Garden Grove officials demanded more money to help host the event.

"We really wanted to be closer to the Vietnamese community, but this is our best option," Tran said of the fairgrounds. "It's a great space and the staff has been so supportive to work with."

The Lunar New Year celebration will run Feb. 7-9, 2014, at the O.C. Fair & Event Center.

Vietnamese Americans applauded the news on social media; many supporters had worried about where the festival would be staged.

"It's an ideal solution," said John Truong of Santa Ana, a regular at the Tet Festival for the last decade. He attends with his extended family, who come from Texas and Australia. "It's not exactly in Little Saigon, but it's close enough and we won't have trouble with parking."

Indeed, Tran cites ample parking as one of the advantages of the new venue. She and Billy Le, former president of the student group, toured the fairgrounds last year before negotiations with Garden Grove officials turned difficult last fall.

Garden Grove Councilwoman Dina Nguyen said the festival cost the city nearly $1.2 million over the last 11 years, a figure organizers said seemed inflated. The City Council had asked organizers to provide financial statements from previous events, with Mayor Bruce Broadwater angry that he could not see a detailed accounting of expenses.

Negotiations for the 2014 celebration involved a public meeting in September that drew hundreds to Garden Grove City Hall, with community activists pleading with council members to keep the "largest Tet festival in the free world" where it is.

Contract talks ended in late October, leading Tran's team to begin scouting spots in Westminster and Santa Ana, looking at mall space, parks and a civic center. Some community members urged the group to return the event to Westminster, birthplace of Little Saigon and a city next door to Garden Grove.

"We have the Tet parade — why not the Tet Festival?" Westminster City Councilman Sergio Contreras wondered. "I remember going to the festival years ago — just right here — and it would be great to welcome them home."

Tran said she would have preferred to stay close, but Westminster lacked a venue that could hold crowds that can reach more than 50,000 during the three days of festivities.

"We wanted to keep it central to the Vietnamese population," she said, "and we understand that older adults may not have the means to attend as it's a bit far away" at the fairgrounds.

While her team works on security details with Costa Mesa police and the Orange County Sheriff's Department, organizers will also look into busing people from Little Saigon to the fairgrounds.

"We have festival vendors totally geared toward the Vietnamese population, but we also have vendors seeing this as an opportunity to connect with other populations," Tran said of the venue change. "We've been very blessed — and we feel welcomed" working with fairgrounds staff.

ahn.do@latimes.com