With one of the most dramatic entrances in all of spring training and several homages to South Florida, The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches opened with some issues in spring training 2017, but offseason work should yield the full fan experience envisioned by designers and team officials.
We attended a spring training game in March, and while there were no big issues with the ballpark performance, it clearly was not finished. It was mostly functional, though at the beginning of spring training some concessions were not up and running, and there were challenges with the parking and landscaping. Perhaps more importantly, the team spaces were functional, giving the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros a solid start to the 2017 season. (Indeed, both team lead their respective divisions. Coincidence? You decide.)
Site work continues in this offseason, and by the time spring training 2018 rolls around, the ballpark should be in fighting shape. We recently toured the ballpark with Mo Stein, HKS Principal and Senior Vice President, for a behind-the-scenes tour.
Like any other spring-training complex, The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches is really two sets of facilities. The public-facing part of the equation is the seating bowl, concourse, concessions and parking. There’s a whole different world behind the scenes for players. We’ll cover both.
For the Fans
The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches is located between Haverhill Road and North Military Trail, south of 45th Street and north of one of the many waterways intersecting West Palm Beach. That location is convenient: both Haverhill Road and Military Trail are two or three lanes wide south of 45th Street, making for easy access. To make it even easier, the ballpark is located between Florida’s Turnpike (to the west) and I-95 (to the east), making for easy access all throughout the greater Palm Beach area.
That easy access makes for easy parking, with large lots located both north and south of the ballpark. (A smaller paved lot to the west of the ballpark is set aside for team officials and higher-priced reserved parking.) Work continues on cleaning up those lots and installing a new park on the southwest corner of the property.
All paths lead to a grand staircase, the ballpark’s signature entry area. If you park on the south side of the ballpark, you’ll walk through the Nationals’ workout fields before crossing a bridge that takes you to the grand staircase. This entry area is flanked by two giant Astros and Nationals logos. These became the signature selfie spots every ballpark needs these days, with fans lining up before a game to snare a shot in front of their team logo. From there fans ascend the stairs to the main ballpark entrance gates and ticket offices. (This grand entry area also serves another purpose: it can be used as a gathering spot on non-game days for community events.)
This entry is by no means imposing, but it is grand in scope. The grand staircase is functional, bringing you to the concourse level. The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches is a low-slung installation built 14 feet above ground level. “If we had gone even four feet down, we would have hit the water table, so going above ground was our only choice,” Stein said.
The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches is not a complicated structure, at least on the fan side. The 360-degree concourse is perfectly level, and the seating bowl is a single level with no cross aisle. The second story features six suites, a press box and two open-air bars that are also sold as group spaces. (If you have a chance to take in a game and the second-level bar is open, go up there: you get some downtown views of West Palm Beach and Palm Beach.) The suites have a unique design: the outdoor area is merely an extension of the indoor area, with no steps down and no fixed seats. Fans have the option to place as many or as few seats outside. An outdoor drink rail completes the suite experience.
A feature that adds to the open and airy feel of The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches: a very large outfield berm stretching from foul pole to foul pole. In general, crowds stuck to the fixed seating and eschewed the large berm in 2017, something that should change in 2018 and beyond as fans become more familiar with the seating options. (Berms are becoming a rarity in the Grapefruit League: the Roger Dean Stadium berm was removed two years ago, and a renovation of Joker Marchant Stadium led to a smaller berm.) Our favorite spot in the ballpark: the patio furniture set up under the outfield scoreboard. It would be a smart move and a minimal investment to set up patio furniture across the whole outfield concourse.
Speaking of the concourse: it is wide and purposely left as open as possible. That allows for plenty of portable points of sale and food trucks. And although there’s only one team store, portable points of sale brought additional T-shirts, hats and more to fans on the concourse.
There is a unique design element repeated throughout the ballpark: custom-made sun screens hung in both horizontal and vertical installations. Designed by a local artist, the screens combine some baseball elements with larger cutouts designed to look like a palm frond. You’ll see those screens throughout the ballpark, including above your head as you enter the main gate.
“We were going for a casual feel here, trying to capture the Palm Beach lifestyle,” Stein said. “For fans, this ballpark has a very open feel, complete with plenty of breezes and sun.”
For the Players
Where The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches shines, however, is as a player-development facility. That addresses several needs: bringing the MLB squads into shape during spring training, to hone the skills of younger players and to rehab major leaguers.
The Astros training facility is on the third-base side, and the Nationals training facility is on the first-base side. Both are 51,000 square feet, and both feature decks overlooking the concourse, but in terms of functionality they’re laid out quite differently. The Nationals separate major leaguers and minor leagues with separate facilities, including separate workout rooms and separate training rooms. The Astros, on the other hand, have one big workout area for everyone, complete with a cardio mezzanine with elliptical trainers and more.
The player side also includes every amenity, including conference rooms, video rooms, media areas and cafeterias. Both training facilities feature plenty of hydrotherapy pools and endurance pools. The layout of the training facilities is different on each side, though interestingly both feature a football-field-sized synthetic-turf workout area right outside the clubhouses and training rooms. On the Nats side, there’s even a dedicated changing room for the mascots. Decks on both sides allow team officials to watch the game from above the concourse.
As noted, there are still workers onsite, either finishing existing work or addressing punch-list items. Some of the work also addresses issues that popped up during spring training.
For a 160-acre site, there’s not a lot of unused or underused space. That’s partially due to the water features on the west side of the property. An existing 13-acre lake was totally uncovered during site prep, and during site development two more lakes were installed. All in all, 47 acres of water are on site, and other portions of the site are lost to a berm next to the waterway on the south end of the property.
And other parts of the site are being used for things other than baseball. Part of the deal for public approval of The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches was a commitment to a public park in the southwest corner of the property. There is already a 1.75-mile path around the ballpark, and this path will make its way to and from the public park. Work on the park is underway and should be ready for 2018.
In the End
For players who had spent time training at Osceola County Stadium or the Carl Barger Complex at Space Coast Stadium, The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches was an amazing upgrade, with everything a modern player would want.
And although the attendance numbers may not have shown it, The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches was a hit for West Palm Beach and the greater Palm Beach area. One way to measure how successful the ballpark attracted visitors: the first three months of 2017 saw a record number of tourists to Palm Beach County, up 7 percent over the same time period in 2016. Among the interesting numbers generated by a local tourism group: the number of tourists from Houston was up 23 percent, and the number of tourists from Washington, D.C. was up 14 percent.
“I think the fans really felt like this was a big part of their community,” Stein said. “We were aiming to provide a great experience with The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, and I think we succeeded.”
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