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Daily Pilot

Hello, new PacAmp

Visitors to fairgrounds amphitheater's open house get birds-eye view of dramatic changes at concert venue.

By Bradley Zint

10:36 PM PDT, June 20, 2013

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Rock stars usually headline the Pacific Amphitheatre, but on Wednesday evening fairgrounds administrators took center stage.

During an open house, officials showed off the venue's dramatic changes, part of a $13.8-million renovation effort aimed at creating a more intimate setting at the Orange County Fair & Event Center.

More than 150 visitors got a chance to walk onstage and backstage and alongside what's left of the venue's outer dirt berm.

"It's a good opportunity to let our neighbors know what's going on," Fair Board Chairman Douglas La Belle said. "I'm very pleased with it."

The excavation of PacAmp's berm, which began in February and was completed a few weeks ago, has freed up about 3 acres that will house a second entrance plaza that better connects the venue to the summertime fair.As a result, the project lowers the venue's overall capacity because the then-grassy berm was a seating area.

The Fair Board will be looking at contracts for the additional work at the amphitheater, including the new entrance plaza, next month.

PacAmp, which opened in the early 1980s, was initially plagued by concerns from neighbors around the 150-acre fairgrounds. After years of complaints about noisy concerts, the venue was closed for nearly a decade before quietly reopening in 2003.

Acoustic changes since then have better focused the sound inside the house, said Gary Hardesty, the fairgrounds' chief technology and production officer.

The remaining berm is smaller and steeper, Hardesty said, "so it will give me the ability to keep the sound out of the neighborhoods better."

To make room for the new entrance plaza, the Memorial Gardens Building, a former World War II-era army barracks, is slated to be demolished once the summer fair ends. One attendee, standing within sight of the Memorial Gardens Building during the tour, questioned its historical importance.

Doug Lofstrom, the interim chief executive for the fairgrounds, said the building underwent an environmental review process about a decade ago and was not identified as historically significant.

The fairgrounds' 2003 master plan ultimately did not call for the Memorial Gardens Building to stay there, he said.

Still, "We do know there are some people who have very, very strong feelings about recognizing the past. We support that," Lofstrom told the crowd.

He said fairgrounds staff are in contact with preservationists, including the Costa Mesa Historical Society, and "we want them to be as comfortable as they possibly can" in the process, which will involve repurposing some of the historical elements of the old barracks.