Veterans make a pitch for a memorial garden

A group of veterans and local activists urged the Orange County Fair Board on Thursday to build a memorial garden at the fairgrounds that would honor veterans and the property's military heritage.

The garden would be an appropriate addition to the fairgrounds' planned veterans exhibit near the Centennial Farm, the group told the board, and provide a park-like meeting place for county veterans where they could grow their own food like the victory gardens of yore.

The group added that the land would signify the fairgrounds' history as a 150-acre section of the 1,336-acre Santa Ana Army Air Base, a World War II facility that was decommissioned in 1946.

"We're here to really support your endeavors regarding the veterans," said Frank Pangborn, who served during the Vietnam War and is a member of the Freedom Committee of Orange County, a volunteer group that shares the history of battle. "We really think that we need something like this in Orange County."

The group also noted that, if a memorial garden was created, it wouldn't be the first time the fairgrounds had one.

For nearly 25 years, the state-owned property in Costa Mesa hosted the 1.4-acre Orange County Memorial Garden, a nonprofit facility dedicated to veterans. It was established in 1953 and torn out in the early 1980s to make room for the Pacific Amphitheatre.

The Memorial Gardens Building, a former Army barracks that was left intact through the decades, was named after the garden near it.

Until last year, the 4,800-square-foot building was slated for demolition, with some of its historical elements salvaged, to make room for a new entrance plaza for the Pacific Amphitheatre — the same venue that led to the gardens' demise decades earlier.

But after the concerns of preservationists and veterans surfaced, the Fair Board voted to save the Memorial Gardens Building from the bulldozer. The board eventually approved moving the old barracks to a temporary location elsewhere on the fairgrounds until the building's future, probably as a veterans exhibit or museum, is finalized.

Fair Board member Nick Berardino, a Marine veteran who served in Vietnam, urged board Chairman Stan Tkaczyk to put the discussion of a memorial garden on a future agenda. Tkaczyk complied, and the matter is tentatively scheduled for the next board meeting on April 24.

"Once again, veterans are going to have to fight, like we're used to fighting, to get our space," Berardino said.

He added that the California Military Department in Sacramento has expressed interest in partnering with the fairgrounds on the veterans project.

Having that state-run organization involved, Berardino said, could help with fundraising efforts and still give Orange County local control.

"This has really reached a point where the community support has grown so much, it's becoming easier than we anticipated," he said.

Berardino noted the competing interests for use of the fairgrounds property, be they vendors, "fried Twinkies and who knows what else."

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