Community Commentary: Fairgrounds play a big role in kids' lives

Now that the 4th District Court of Appeal has decided to stop the sale of the Orange County Fair & Event Center, let's hope the adults will quit fighting over the future of the fairgrounds so we can get back to what we do best: provide great educational programs for the kids.

Amid all the noise, I've thought a lot about the hundreds of thousands of Orange County kids who have visited the fairgrounds over the years. I've thought about the brand new worlds in agriculture, livestock, science and art they've experienced. And I've imagined how their experiences might have shaped their academic interests and career choices.

I've also wondered about today's kids who might have fewer chances — or perhaps none at all — to experience the fairgrounds and its programs if the property were to be sold. The truth is that the fairgrounds is much more than a 150-acre piece of land property; it's a year-round classroom, laboratory, working farm and arts center.

There's Centennial Farm — a 3-acre working farm that's home to the Millennium Barn, extensive fruit and vegetable gardens, and a variety of livestock including pigs, chickens, goats and cattle. Supported by an annual allocation of nearly $1 million by the fairgrounds' board of directors, Centennial Farm is the educational heart of the fairgrounds, providing much needed agriculture education to the public, with an emphasis on children.

Since 2002, Centennial Farm has hosted the Ranch After-School Program. This educational partnership that includes the fairgrounds, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District and the city of Costa Mesa provides fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students from College Park, Davis, Paularino and Sonora schools hands-on experience in growing vegetables and fruit, caring for livestock and fashioning handmade crafts from leather. More than 600 youngsters have participated in the program, sharing their experiences and what they've learned through essays and posters at the program's annual awards celebration.

Centennial Farm also provides year-round docent and self-guided tours and is the home of our widely popular Youth Expo, Pet Expo and "Agademics" program. Over the last 10 years, nearly a quarter of a million adults and children have participated in these and other events and programs at Centennial Farm.

In addition to the board of directors' annual allocation of non-taxpayer dollars, the many outstanding educational programs offered at Centennial Farm are supported by the Centennial Farm Foundation. Established in 1991, the foundation was organized to raise funds to operate Centennial Farm and other agricultural and youth related education programs and exhibits at the fairgrounds. Each year, more than 100,000 kids visit Centennial Farm from throughout Southern California's seven counties and beyond — all at no cost to the children or their schools.

Apart from the rich academic opportunities at Centennial Farm, the entire O.C. Fair & Event Center is a truly unique educational campus throughout the year. The annual Youth Expo features more than 6,000 school projects created by Orange County's youth. The Crafts, Fine Arts, Science and Social Studies competition is recognized as the largest academic fair and competition of its kind in Orange County.

The Youth Expo is free to the student participants. Often, members of the board of directors personally underwrite bus transportation to the Youth Expo for school districts without the funds to do so. The Youth Expo also coincides with the annual Orange County Science & Engineering Fair (OCSEF), a nonprofit educational organization that has promoted the sciences in Orange County for more than 50 years. The OCSEF challenges students to inquire, design and investigate scientific and engineering concepts through experimentation.

GIRLtopia is a special art showcase for Girl Scouts in the ninth and 10th grades, presenting opportunities for girls to share their vision of an ideal world through the creation of art projects. The fairgrounds partners with Girl Scouts to provide a gallery showcase for their works at the Youth Expo.

But perhaps the O.C. Fair & Event Center's deepest roots in fulfilling its mission to celebrate the agricultural heritage of Orange County are found in our partnership with the Orange County 4-H Council. The fairgrounds is home to the Orange County 4-H Council and is the venue for the numerous camps and activities of its 17 clubs, including the annual O.C. Fair 4-H Day Camp held during the O.C. Fair, and the ever-popular Junior Livestock Auction.

The Junior Livestock Auction is the showcase for the yearlong efforts of local 4-H youth and Future Farmers of America. Each of these valuable education programs is completely funded by revenues generated from the fairgrounds' operations.

The history lesson here is that the O.C. Fair & Event Center — as a public entity — has shaped the lives and enriched the knowledge of generations of children who have visited its facilities and participated in its programs. I doubt that we could hope for a similar future under private ownership.

DAVID ELLIS is chairman of the 32nd District Agricultural Assn.'s Board of Directors. STEVEN BEAZLEY is president and chief executive of the OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa.

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