The Orange County Fair Board on Thursday approved steps to create a nonprofit organization whose primary goal would be set up a veterans exhibit at the fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.

Officials estimate that it will cost the organization $12,000 to $15,000 to form a federally recognized nonprofit, as well as create bylaws and policies. The board's legal counsel — Manatt, Phelps & Phillips — will do the work.

Fair Board Director Nick Berardino, a Vietnam War-era Marine veteran, said the exhibit will honor the memories of those who served their country and show that "freedom isn't free."

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"The veterans' exhibit enthusiasm is just growing," Berardino said, adding that he has discussed the proposal with legislators, veterans groups and other interested parties. "This is really catching on."

The exhibit is tentatively planned for an area near the Centennial Farm and within the Memorial Gardens Building, a former World War II Army barracks that was saved from demolition last year and moved to a temporary location at a fairgrounds parking lot.

Directors Ali Jahangiri and Kristina Dodge dissented. Vice Chairwoman Ashleigh Aitken was absent.

Jahangiri said he felt creating another nonprofit could over-complicate the situation. He referred to the problems experienced during the failed fairgrounds sale attempt a few years ago, when a nonprofit was formed to attempt to buy the 150-acre, state-owned property.

"It got sticky, it got dragged on for years and years," Jahangiri said. "Let's not complicate things, increase legal bills and [create] this nonprofit organization."

Proponents said the new nonprofit could be set up in a fashion similar to the Centennial Farm Foundation, which for decades has successfully governed the 3-acre working farm on the fairgrounds property.

Representatives from Orange Coast College, the veterans community and the Costa Mesa Historical Society will contribute to the effort.

Fair officials on Thursday said the exhibit will be "broad and inclusive" of all U.S. military branches and conflicts. It will contain permanent displays, rotating exhibits and interactive elements. It will also have stories from individual Orange County veterans that highlight their sacrifices and contributions.

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D.A. investigation update

Fair Board counsel Roger Grable said the Orange County district attorney's "active" investigation into the failed fairgrounds sale is continuing and he can't speculate on how much longer the examination will take.

Investigators have done interviews with fairgrounds staff members, Grable said, and will be contacting the state attorney general's office, which represented the state-owned fairgrounds until late 2009.

In 2011, the sale of the 150-acre property failed amid fierce public debate and a lawsuit. The Fair Board then formed the Fair Sale Review Committee to investigate any possible improprieties.

About a year ago, the district attorney's office acquired a report by the committee that was sharply critical of the attempted fairgrounds sale and questioned several aspects of the move.

District attorney's office officials, however, have declined to comment on the report or any investigation.

In October, the Fair Board voted to waive the attorney-client privilege it once had with the state attorney general's office, which had abruptly dropped the fairgrounds during the sale attempt to avoid a conflict of interest.

At the time, the board's move was considered a clear indication that investigators were again opening up the books and examining the sale, which then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger initiated in 2009 as a means to sell off public lands and help the state's budget.

A district attorney's investigation from 2010 found no conflict of interest related to the proposed fairgrounds sale or violation of the state's open-meeting laws.

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Open house scheduled

The fairgrounds is having an open house and discussion from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. March 11 in the administration building off Arlington Drive.

The property is preparing an assessment of community needs and seeks more public input.

Organizers ask that attendees "help identify the strengths, needs and visions" for the fairgrounds property in Costa Mesa.

For more information or to submit a comment, email ocfinfo@ocfair.com.