Baseball stadium in West Palm Beach: officials break ground

When you host a groundbreaking ceremony at an old trash dump, there’s no telling what the shovels might turn up.

So, the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals put on quite a show Monday when they invited more than 100 local leaders to a ceremony marking the start of construction on a $144 million spring training complex they’ll share starting in 2017.

They erected a white 80-foot tent on one corner of the 160-acre site south of 45th Street. They hired a valet service to park cars. They brought in a children’s choir to sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

And under the tent, they built a temporary baseball diamond filled with dirt — but the dirt was not from the actual site. It was red clay brought in from Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, the spring home of the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals about 10 minutes up Interstate 95.

While the imported clay was symbolic of the local ties between The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Roger Dean Stadium, it also guaranteed that no shovel would turn up an old tire, broken bottle or something best left buried.

Just before 11 a.m., Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and 18 other dignitaries grabbed baseball bats with silver shovels fastened to the ends and sunk them into the imported clay.

“In today’s economic environment, it’s so difficult to get a project like this done, so congratulations to all of you,’’ Manfred said to the crowd of about 100.

Lined up with ceremonial shovels on either side of Manfred were West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio and five city commissioners, the seven Palm Beach County commissioners and the owners and general managers of the Astros and Nationals.

In her opening remarks, Muoio quoted from two Hall of Fame baseball players: Nolan Ryan and Bob Feller. She ended her comments by throwing in a famous line from another Hall of Famer, the late Yogi Berra, to remind the crowd that the new complex marks the return of spring training to the city for the first time since 1997.

“I’m looking forward to all of us returning to the same spot in the spring of 2017 for the opening pitch as spring training returns to the city of West Palm Beach. It will be like déjà vu all over again,’’ she said.

At other times, the ceremony felt like a roast. Palm Beach County Mayor Shelley Vana was presented with a gag gift of balloons shaped like pigs — a reference to a “pigs will fly” comment she made more than a year ago about the chances of the county and city pulling off a land swap to make the baseball stadium deal happen.

“It is historic,’’ Vana said of the deal, “because it will change the lives of the people who live in the area, it will be an inspiration for all the kids in Palm Beach County and it’s going to be a wonderful economic driver.’’

The ceremony, which marked a milestone in negotiations that started more than three years ago, also featured an appearance — sort of — from Gov. Rick Scott, who gave a videotaped message from flat-screen televisions set up beside the stage.

“This is going to be some incredible place,’’ said Nationals owner Mark Lerner, who was introduced by Scott in the well-choreographed ceremony.

The project was approved with a budget of $135 million, paid for by a combination of money from the teams, revenue from a county hotel tax and economic incentive money from the state. But the budget already has gone up to $144 million, with the teams responsible for the overage.

It will cost at least $20 million just to clear the former dump site of debris and trees before construction can start.

“When we first started doing it, I said, ‘What’s so hard about turning an old trash dump into a great baseball facility?’’’ recalled Astros owner Jim Crane, referring to the site’s use as a landfill from 1955 until about 2000.

“I didn’t realize how difficult it would be. … I didn’t really have a good feel until I met with a lot of people and saw all the parts that it took to get this done.’’

Manfred, who owns a house in Juno Beach, said the West Palm Beach complex will help preserve the Grapefruit League in Florida.

“One of the things we particularly like about spring training in Florida is that we have a west coast branch and an east coast branch. This project was really crucial for maintaining that east coast branch,’’ Manfred said.

“It gives more people an opportunity to see the game and that’s really important for us.’’

Now, the teams face a tight deadline to open by 2017.

“We’ll open it on time,’’ Crane said. “The project is well organized so I think we’ll knock it out.’’

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