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Dome may have game face in time

Tropicana Field should be ready for its debut basketball game Feb. 18 _ but it won't be done.

As part of the scramble to complete major stadium upgrades for fast-approaching deadlines, the construction team will prioritize its work, finishing in phases, according to a consultant's report.

When Eckerd College and Barry University face off in the domed stadium for a Feb. 18 Sunshine State Conference game, fans will find much of the facility blocked off. Two food courts should be open. But the new entrance on the north side of the dome won't be complete and venues such as a planned sports bar will be off-limits.

By March 20, when the NCAA men's basketball "Sweet 16" tournament is scheduled to start, officials say all the visible bells and whistles will be ready. The landscaping will be installed, and, for the most part, fans will experience the finished product. But out of public view, administrative offices, storage spaces and other hidden work may not be finished until April, when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays move in.

City Council members heard an update on the project Thursday from some of the consultants hired to unclog jams at the construction site. With tight deadlines looming, city leaders last month acknowledged that the Devil Rays, the contractors, architects, the construction managers and maybe even the city had turned the job site into a family so dysfunctional that completing the job on time was in serious jeopardy.

On Thursday, council members heard tepid optimism from their consultants.

"There's a little bit too much sugar-coating going on," said William Mackie Chapman, a vice president of Trauner Consulting Services, whose resume says he has managed more than $1-billion in construction projects throughout the country. "There's a lot of work to do, and a very short time to do it in."

Still, both Chapman and consulting attorney Fred Lyon predicted the project would be completed in time.

"What I perceived to be somewhat of a stalemate several weeks ago, appears to be breaking up," Lyon said.

To help speed things along, he asked council members to ease off their controls on change orders in the construction contracts. Where they had been approving any change order worth more than $10,000, Lyons asked they they be kept abreast of all change orders, but forego signing off on changes worth less than $100,000.

Council member Connie Kone initially balked at relinquishing control, but she and her colleagues wound up unanimously agreeing to the change.

The city and Devil Rays agreed to put an additional $7.2-million into the project to help put it back on track and cover necessary change orders. Council member Bea Griswold noted that the team's managing general partner, Vince Naimoli, "shares in the grief from now on. At this point there's a strong incentive on both sides not to spend money that it's not necessary to spend."

The cost of upgrading the dome for baseball initially had been pegged at about $50-million, but now looks like a moving target. The city's latest estimate of the public tab comes to more than $54-million. In addition, the Devil Rays have estimated their investment in the renovation at roughly $35-million, though city officials said they have no verification of that figure.