The near-capacity crowd at the Orange County Fair Board meeting broke into applause Thursday after the group created a committee to gather input from veterans and their groups on a potential replacement for the Memorial Gardens Building.
The former Army barracks, which has served multiple purposes over the decades, could be demolished later this year to make way for renovations at the Pacific Amphitheatre.
Board Chairman Douglas La Belle selected himself and directors Ashleigh Aitken and Nick Berardino for the group that Berardino suggested could consider building a memorial and war museum to preserve the fairgrounds’ military heritage.
The 150-acre fairgrounds were originally part of the Santa Ana Army Air Base, which existed from 1942 to ’46.
“So often, military bases are poured over, they’re made into parking lots and people forget about them,” said Berardino, who served during the Vietnam War. “There’s not always a very good opportunity for us to honor and say thank you to everyone that’s served.”
Most of the 11 public speakers focused more on the importance of having future generations remember the past than on the actual building.
“There is a need for a place to educate people, especially the younger generation, on our military and the war,” said Bob Palazzola, president of the Costa Mesa Historical Society. “Not to glorify war, but to have a better understanding of the price paid for our freedom.”
Palazzola, who choked back tears as he spoke, said there are no military museums in Orange County “that honor all branches of the service.”
Previous Fair Board discussions included suggestions to tear down the building because it doesn’t meet safety codes and salvaging parts of it to incorporate into a memorial.
Costa Mesa Councilwoman Sandy Genis said the state historic building code is flexible with structure safety and Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. The Memorial Gardens Building has been a California Point of Historical Interest for 34 years.
“Don’t just dismiss it because it doesn’t meet current codes because on historical buildings, most of them don’t,” she said.
Once the dust has settled after this year’s O.C. Fair, Berardino suggested that staff look into the feasibility of building a war museum in the city.
“This is our heritage. This is why we’re here,” said Fair Board Vice Chairman Stan Tkaczyk. “The opportunity to build something like this is a great opportunity and I don’t think we should let this opportunity slip. … I hope we get it done and we get it done soon.”
Proposed changes for SB 741
In other Fair Board news, members of the Orange County Fair Preservation Society submitted changes they would like to see in a Senate bill that reportedly could lead to privatization of publicly owned fairgrounds.
Reggie Mundekis and Theresa Sears suggested changes to Senate Bill 741, written by Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Salinas), which would set guidelines on the use of fairgrounds as well as establish an appeal process if a board decides to change 25% or more of the fairgrounds.
According to the changes, fairgrounds would be used for “providing educational, entertainment and recreational opportunities for the general public.” The property would also offer space for concerts, conferences, festivals and trade shows.
In May, directors sent Cannella a letter opposing the bill. SB 741 has since passed the Senate floor and is awaiting a hearing from the California Agriculture Commission.