- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2007

An afternoon downpour dashed plans to install the last piece of structural steel at the Washington Nationals’ new ballpark, but officials from the District and the stadium construction team slogged through with plans to recognize the more than 700 workers on hand.

The placement of the last piece of structural steel — often referred to as “topping out” — is seen as a key benchmark on major construction projects. With the last piece of steel ready more than six months before Opening Day 2008, officials from Clark Construction, the Nationals and the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission treated the stadium workers with an afternoon off and a barbecue lunch.

“This is a day to celebrate all of the workers,” said Matthew Cutts, chairman of the sports commission, which is overseeing the stadium project.

The afternoon event started well enough, with hundreds of workers eating lunch under a hot sun and taking turns using markers to sign their name and in some cases their union affiliation on the final steel beam. But a cloudburst forced attendees to huddle in the concourses and under cover of the right field upper deck.

A few months ago, there might not have been anywhere to hide from the rain. But the ballpark’s steel, as well as the concrete for the upper and lower decks, has risen quickly from the former industrial wasteland along South Capitol Street.

Work on the $611 million ballpark began in March 2006, and the stadium is on schedule to be completed in time for the start next season. It is the fastest construction time line ever for a ballpark project.

“This represents that when the District of Columbia says it’s going to do something, it gets it done on time and on budget,” D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty said. “People all over the country are watching this project, so we’ve got to be here to recognize this milestone.”

The construction team began installing seats at the stadium Friday and is expected to begin construction of the parking garage outside the ballpark’s left-field wall later this month. The team will erect portions of the main scoreboard starting Aug. 15 and is on schedule to start laying down the grass field Oct. 31.

In the meantime, hundreds of workers are active in the stadium’s underbelly, working on tasks like plumbing and electrical systems and building the ballpark’s concession stands and locker rooms. Gradually, workers are moving from the right field to left field in installing speakers, railing, lighting and fireproofing.

“I saw it come together from the first piece,” said Kenneth Barnes, a senior teamster with Crane Rental Company, a subcontractor working to install the steel. “It’s coming along. … I can come back and say I was a part of this.”

Barnes said he has been at the stadium site at least five days a week since last fall, when the steel was first delivered.

“It’s one of those D.C. icons that will hopefully be here forever,” he said. “It’s a sense of pride to say I’ve been a part of it.”

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