Ballpark still not done as Astros, Nats return for spring training

The World Series champion Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals return to town this week for their second spring training at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.

When players arrive, they might see the familiar faces of hard-hatted work crews.

More than a year after the teams’ $152 million shared facility opened, construction still isn’t finished. And it might be June before the city issues a final certificate of occupancy, which will mark the end of a rocky construction process that has faced numerous challenges since work started in November 2015.

Over the next six weeks of spring training, players and fans shouldn’t notice too many signs of unfinished work, team officials said. In fact, fans watching practice sessions will enjoy a few upgrades, such as bleachers with new canopies offering shade at one Astros practice field and two Nationals practice fields.

But since the Astros and Nationals left town in April, construction crews have been busy fixing and replacing shoddy work from the hectic rush to open on time in January 2017.

Most of the major repairs have been done, including patched roof leaks, new turf in batting cages and the replacement of all windows in the complex. But other work such as repainting most of the steel and repairing concrete is continuing.

“Tremendous progress is being made and we are very close to the finish line,’’ Marc Taylor, the teams’ project manager, wrote Jan. 11 in a request to the city for a third extension of the facility’s temporary certificate of occupancy.

The teams expect all of the work to be done before the latest extension, granted Jan. 18, expires on June 29.

“They are certainly moving in the right direction. I don’t see any of the issues being major,” said Rick Greene, the city’s development services director.

Problems with the project have created tension between the teams, the general contractor and the subcontractor. Lawsuits have been filed. Some subs have complained about not being paid, and the teams have been critical about the performance of Hunt Construction Group, the lead general contractor.

To speed up completion, the Astros and Nationals in October started doing some work on their own, without using Hunt — from ceiling work in the Nationals’ executive offices to elevator finishes and repairs to the playing fields.

“We are pleased to report that we believe Hunt is very close to undertaking the necessary tasks required to achieve substantial completion certification,’’ according to a statement issued Wednesday to the County Commission by the Astros and Nationals.

While the statement offered an optimistic view of the progress, it also noted that “this has been a difficult project” and hinted at lingering tension.

“We are working through these differences the best was we can by making ourselves and our team available every single day to communicate with those willing to professionally discuss those matters,’’ the statement said.

The teams also reiterated their commitment to making sure the facility conforms with all codes and that public money is carefully spent.

The county’s contribution, from tourist tax revenue, is limited to a $135 million project budget approved by the County Commission. Anything above that is paid for by the Nationals and Astros.

The teams already are committed to paying about one-third of the project’s original budget but also are on the hook for more than $17 million in added costs that have driven the budget up to $152 million, an amount expected to rise slightly before the project is completed.

“We always would like a project to be wrapped up in a pretty bow on the date you want it to be, but the most important thing is that it serves its function and everybody is safe. These administrative things will be resolved,’’ said Audrey Wolf, the county’s facilities development and operations director.

Astros pitchers and catchers will report on Wednesday and start workouts on Thursday. The rest of the position players must report by Feb. 19. The first full-squad workout is scheduled for Feb. 20.

Nationals pitchers and catchers also report Wednesday. Position players will report Feb. 19, and the first full-squad workout is scheduled for Feb. 21.

The Astros will host the Nationals in the ballpark’s Grapefruit League opener on Feb. 23, leaving only three days for full-squad workouts before the first game.

Meanwhile, a 12-acre public park at the southwest corner of the complex is expected to open in April, but Greene said there’s a chance it could open during spring training.

On Feb. 22, the Astros will celebrate their World Series championship with local residents in downtown West Palm Beach at Clematis by Night from 6 to 9 p.m. on the east end of Clematis Street.

The team will bring its World Series trophy and Orbit the mascot while offering chances to win free spring training tickets. There’s a chance players will attend, too.

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