Fairgrounds under the microscope

For a place with the word "agricultural" in its formal name, there's an awful lot of asphalt about.

That was one recurring sentiment expressed Tuesday night during a free-flowing public session at the Orange County Fairgrounds — officially the 32nd District Agricultural Assn.

Roughly 30 attendees gave their thoughts on the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats — known in the business world as a SWOT analysis — for the 150-acre, state-owned property in Costa Mesa.

And they did so without the Fair Board or fairgrounds staff in the room.

The nearly two-hour session was led by Bill Kelly, a consultant approved by the Fair Board to assess the property's needs. That effort involves talking to staff, board members, vendors, the public and other stakeholders in the coming months.

"We're doing a 360-degree interview of the organization," Kelly said.

He acknowledged from the outset that he's no stranger to the O.C. Fairgrounds. He served on its Fair Sale Review Committee, which last year issued a damning report about the years-long, and ultimately failed, attempt to sell and privatize the property.

Kelly said he got the consultant job after a fair bidding and interview process. The former Arcadia city manager will present the information to the Fair Board in a report that he said could act like a "road map" for the next fairgrounds chief executive.

"The new CEO will hopefully be embracing a new vision," he said.

Speakers Tuesday defined strengths as the fairgrounds' diversity of offerings, namely its major performance venue, the Pacific Amphitheatre, as well as the Centennial Farm, equestrian center, animal pens and flexible, year-round, convention-worthy meeting spaces.

Some were complimentary of the recent effort to save the Memorial Gardens Building, a World War II-era Army barracks, from demolition and turn it into a kind of veterans exhibit.

Others touted the virtues of the fairgrounds' public ownership.

"That's huge. It gives it a different mission entirely," said Reggie Mundekis. "It's here to serve the community."

Hard feelings linger from the sale attempt, which then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger began in 2009 as a means to help the state budget by selling off public lands. It ended by 2011 under a new governor, Jerry Brown, amid community outcry and legal challenges.

"The mind-set of the executive staff here, they don't view this as a public property," said Theresa Sears, who, like Kelly, also served on the Fair Sale Review Committee. "It's really a town square."

Some neighbors were critical of events with, as one put it, an "oversized noise footprint," such as concerts in The Hangar and monster truck rallies.

Others were critical of the five-week summertime fair and said the property shouldn't be competing with theme parks. Rather, true to its history, the fairgrounds should try to maintain a more rural character and expand its farm and equestrian facilities, speakers said.

One accusation was that some fairgrounds staffers focus on the bottom line at the expense of the community's needs.

"They've lost their vision," said Costa Mesa resident Greg Ridge.

Some attendees stressed the need for more family-friendly activities and revitalization of the Orange County Market Place, the weekend swap meet that has been on the property since 1969.

A proposal was put forward: Is there a possibility of turning the Pacific Amphitheatre into an indoor, year-round concert venue — like the Gibson Amphitheatre in Los Angeles?

The electronic signs along Fairview Road and Fair Drive came under attack. They have LED displays — light-emitting diode — with messages that are bright and distracting to drivers, attendees said.

Kelly stressed that fairgrounds officials want a new vision as they seek a new CEO. The current chief executive, Doug Lofstrom, was hired on an interim basis last year.

The question now, Kelly said, is "where to go from a less-than-spectacular past?"

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