Builder confident spring training baseball stadium will open on time

Thunder rumbled over the busy construction site of the new spring training baseball stadium south of 45th Street, punctuating the end of a rainstorm that stopped work for about 10 minutes Wednesday morning.

“It’s the baseball gods saying, ‘Get it done,’’’ quipped Palm Beach County Commissioner Shelley Vana.

Five months from its scheduled opening, the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches is still a massive work in progress. But after taking a 30-minute tour of the site, Vana said she was confident the $144 million facility will open in January, as the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros have promised.

“You’re going to be open by 2017, right?’’ Vana asked Doug Utt, a general manager of Hunt Construction Group, as they rode around the 160-acre site in a golf cart with a reporter.

“Absolutely. No ‘ifs,’ ‘ands’ or ‘buts’,’’ replied Utt. “I’m excited. I’m already making plans to bring my family to the first game and eat a hot dog.’’

There could be one possible ‘but’ — the weather or, to be exact, a hurricane. The teams are closely watching the tropical weather systems approaching Florida over the final three months of hurricane season. Even if a tropical storm struck West Palm Beach, the teams should finish on time, Utt said.

“It would have to be something pretty catastrophic” to force the teams to delay the opening another year, he said.

With little margin for error, the teams are working on backup plans just in case the facility isn’t ready by January.

Astros President Reid Ryan spoke to an Osceola County Stadium official in late July about extending the team’s lease there for 2017 in case of a significant delay in West Palm Beach.

”They’ve just got to be prepared for the worst-case scenario,’’ said Don Miers, Osceola County’s director of sports and events facilities, who spoke to Ryan.

The Nationals this past year negotiated a right to extend their contact with Space Coast Stadium in Brevard County for 2017 “if due to unforeseen circumstances” the West Palm Beach stadium wasn’t ready, said Art Fuccillo, a Nationals partner.

That extension clause was negotiated months before construction started at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, which broke ground in November, he said.

“At present the project is rounding second base and sprinting for home as fast and as hard as we can. We expect to be safe at home,’’ Fuccillo said. “The county, the teams and the contractors are all working together and all have one definitive goal — 2017.’’

Astros General Counsel Giles Kibbe said: “Obviously it’s always been a tight schedule but we feel like we are going to get the job done on time.

“Am I a little nervous? Yeah, but I’ve always been nervous about it. It’s a hard job.’’

Vana, who is running for property appraiser, said she always thought the facility would be done on time. But she said she had a greater comfort level after touring the site, where more than 250 workers are simultaneously in action on the main stadium and the practice facilities for both teams.

The second level of the stadium is taking shape. The seating bowl is coming together. The main field is a constant flow of heavy equipment.

Grass is already growing on at least two of the Nationals’ six practice fields. Grass should be blooming on all 12 practice fields by October, Utt said.

“I say it’s going to happen,’’ Vana said. “They said ‘yes’ and I believe them. They’re really cranking here.’’

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