By Alex Scarr, @AMScarr
The stadium situation for the Hartford Yard Goats has been one of the most interesting stories in Minor League Baseball for over a year.
After spending the 2016 season on the road, the Yard Goats weren't certain they would have a home for Opening Day this year. The newest contractors promised to have the stadium ready by April, but the city had heard that narrative before.
Things were such a train wreck that the FBI opened an investigation in February to look into the various construction and budgetary snafus that plagued the Dunkin Donuts Park project.
How did the situation get so bad?
The Hartford Yard Goats are the Double-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies. The franchise moved from New Britain, Connecticut, to Hartford when Hartford promised to build a taxpayer-funded stadium for the Yard Goats.
That taxpayer-funded stadium initially set to open for the 2016 baseball season is just now being finished.
The original cost of the stadium was slated to be around $47 million with development to be done by Center Plan Development, according to WCIT-TV.
The budget was quickly expanded to $56 million and ground broke on development in the summer of 2015.
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Dunkin’ Donuts Park would soon be Hartford’s crown jewel; located smack-dab in the middle of downtown.
According to WCIT-TV, the initial project was structured to incur a taxpayer contribution of eight percent each year for the first five years of the 25-year lease. Hartford would be on the hook for $3.77 million annually.
The city discussed the plan with residents in September 2014 with a completion date set for April 2016.
Residents were excited at the prospect of a new professional team in Hartford after years of abandonment by other franchises.
Even when it was announced, the timeline to pass and build the Hartford stadium in time for the 2016 season was difficult.
On June 10, 2015, the city of Hartford held a press conference to announce the completion of the deal and stated the Yard Goats would play their home games at Dunkin’ Donuts Park, beginning in April of 2016.
They gave themselves 10 months to finish a ballpark.
But by January 2016, the Hartford Courant reported things between the developers and the city of Hartford were a mess.
The developers claimed the city demanded structural and design changes that weren’t possible with the given budget. The city claimed the developers were not forthright and transparent about how far over budget they were.
Three months before Opening Day 2016, the project was more than $10 million over budget and the stadium itself was mostly dirt. Solutions were difficult to find amidst the circular finger-pointing.
Centerplan Construction chief executive, Joe Landino, offered to forgo building fees to trim $1.7 million from the project.
The city and the developers continued to push to make the deadline.
They didn’t make it.
The Yard Goats were forced to play their first month of games on the road, and a new deadline was set for May 17, 2016.
By then, NBC Connecticut reported, the project was supposed to be substantially complete.
May 17 came, and Dunkin’ Donuts Park remained unfinished.
“Today is the deadline for the developers to reach substantial completion of the baseball stadium. There is a certainty that they will not reach it," Hartford mayor Luke Bronin told WFIB. Developers were given an extra week grace period until May 24.
”I think it's very unlikely based on where they are that they're going to have it done by the 24th, either, so we're assessing all of our options,” said Bronin.
On June 6, 2016, Bronin announced Centerplan and associates would be fired from the Dunkin’ Donuts Park project for cost overruns and construction delays. He also expressed concern to WFIB that the project would not be completed by the end of the season.
The costs for the stadium had increased from $56 million to $72 million, and Bronin figured Centerplan was out of money.
Then on July 13, 2016, the Hartford Courant reported that Centerplan and associates filed a lawsuit against the city of Hartford, demanding that no other construction company be allowed to finish the project. The lawsuit charged that Hartford, not Centerplan, was in default for cost overruns and was ultimately at fault for the stalled project.
The city contended it sought to finish construction themselves and not hire another contractor. Centerplan had done enough.
Meanwhile, the Yard Goats were in the middle of their season and had yet to play a true home game.
To this day, they still do not have a stadium.
Over the winter of 2016, Arch Insurance took over the construction of Dunkin’ Donuts Park and ensured the city it would be completed by Opening Day 2017.
Patrick Nails, CEO of Arch Insurance said, “it would take an act of God” to delay construction further, according to the Courant.
Nails also told the Courant that Centerplan and associates misled the city and gave intentional falsehoods about progress updates.
After a recent meeting at city hall, Bronin told the Courant he was impressed by Nail’s professionalism and truthfulness and that he expected the ballpark to be handed over to the team in time to prepare for April 13.
But earlier this month, Councilman Larry Deutsch pleaded with city officials to sell the city’s stake in the ballpark. Hartford is already on the hook for $71 million, and the final cost has yet to be determined, according to the Courant.
"For one thing, it's very clear that the taxpayers will still be stuck with the bill when it opens and the ballgames begin," Deutsch told the Courant. "The amount of income from parking and surcharges or taxes on ticket sales, which only now have become legislatively approved, still fall short of what the city was told it will receive."
So, Hartford looks to be on the short end of the publicly-funded stadium stick. No surprise.
On February 24, 2017, the FBI launched an investigation into the Dunkin’ Donuts Park project and spoke with people who had direct knowledge of financial structure for the stadium, according to the Courant.
The immediate focus of the probe is unknown, but Bronin said the investigation is focused on Centerplan and associates.
"Around the same time, my administration contacted the FBI to share concerns about Centerplan's handling of the project, including their failure to pay subcontractors for their work," Bronin told the Courant on February 24th.
"This is one more demonstration of our commitment to absolute accountability because that's what taxpayers deserve."
Last Saturday, on March 4th, just under a year after the promised completion date of the stadium, the Yard Goats finally moved into Dunkin' Donuts Park.
While it looks that the Yard Goats will indeed play the home opener at home, it didn't keep fans on Twitter from throwing jabs at the team.
“The Yard Goats called to sell me season tickets,” wrote one user on Twitter. “If they had a stadium, maybe. Maybe.”