Fair Board considers veterans garden

Local historians urged the Orange County Fair Board on Thursday to approve a veterans garden for the fairgrounds to replace the one lost during the construction of the Pacific Amphitheatre more than 30 years ago.

In a short presentation, Costa Mesa Historical Society President Bob Palazzola reminded the board and fairgrounds staff about the Orange County Memorial Garden Center, a 1.4-acre nonprofit facility erected in 1954 that commemorated the lives and sacrifices of military personnel. In its heyday, he said, the garden contained 70 trees and 250 shrubs, enough to have the Costa Mesa City Council declare it a bird sanctuary in 1963.

Once the Pacific Amphitheatre went up in the early 1980s, however, the gardens went out. The former Army barracks next to them, which became known as the Memorial Gardens Building, stayed put until last fall, when it was saved from the bulldozer and temporarily relocated. In its place a new entrance for the amphitheater is being constructed.

Palazzola, an Air Force veteran, and others told the board that with plans now brewing to repurpose the Memorial Gardens Building into some kind of veterans museum, there should be a veterans garden again, just like the one lost decades ago. The group first raised the idea before the board last month.

To make his point, Palazzola distributed packets to the board that contained the historical society's extensive documentation about the gardens, including a color postcard of it from the 1950s.

"I think the memorial gardens as you see there, on the postcard, was and could have been the jewel of the fairgrounds," he said.

Fairgrounds Chief Executive Doug Lofstrom clarified to the board that what staff in recent memory called the "memorial gardens" were not the torn-out gardens of yore. The reference was actually to a small outdoor hospitality and reception area next to the Memorial Gardens Building, he said.

Board Chairman Stan Tkaczyk thanked Palazzola for the information, adding that when he first visited the Memorial Gardens Building's reception area, "I walked in there 20 years ago thinking it was the garden, and that it looked good."

Costa Mesa resident Beth Refakes asked the board to consider adding a veterans garden to the acres freed up by the excavation of the Pacific Amphitheatre's dirt berm.

Board Director Nick Berardino, a former Marine who's involved with a task force to create the veterans museum, said he was supportive of the garden idea. He warned that space is limited on the 150-acre fairgrounds property, though a garden might be suitable near the Memorial Gardens Building once it's relocated to a spot near the Centennial Farm.

"We don't have that much space to have a full-fledged garden area," Berardino said. "It's just not there."

Loftstrom told the board that he would confer with fairgrounds staff and try to come up with more veterans garden proposals by next month's meeting.

The board also approved an official name for the nonprofit that is raising funds to set up the veterans museum: the OCFEC Educational and Agricultural Foundation. The name utilizes the abbreviation of O.C. Fair & Event Center, as the fairgrounds are officially known.

Other suggested names included the Seeds of Learning Foundation and Cultivate a Future Foundation.

The board approved creating the nonprofit in February.

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