ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays may want out of Tropicana Field, but, at least for now, the team would like the stadium to be a little more fan-friendly.
The St. Petersburg City Council on Monday agreed to pay for $1.3 million worth of stadium upgrades requested by the team, despite concerns that Mayor-elect Rick Kriseman may be more amenable to letting the Rays explore new stadium sites outside the city.
Chief among the improvements is $250,000 to create a 360-degree walkway that would allow fans to get from left field to right field without having to duck out into the stadium concourse.
The plan is to remove a few rows of seating to make a path that connects to existing walkways close to the right-field scoreboard. The new walkway would also link former Batter’s Eye Restaurant to the Captain Morgan party area.
“As a fan, you’ll be able to continue to watch the game and move through those areas,” said Joe Zeoli, managing director for city development administration.
The Batter’s Eye restaurant would get a makeover. Plans call for a fan-activity area in the front and concessions in the rear with a screen or glass to comply with Major League Baseball rules for a clear backdrop that doesn’t interfere with batters’ sight lines, Zeoli said.
Rays’ officials plan to announce the changes at a press conference on Dec. 3 and declined to comment until then.
Other stadium upgrades planned include new safety handrails, renovation of restrooms and replacement of parking lot lighting.
The city’s contract with the Rays requires the city to make regular stadium improvements. The money comes from a capital repair fund made up of the first $250,000 of the city’s share of ticket fees and revenue from naming rights. The account has a balance of $2.3 million.
Citing poor attendances, the Rays have been trying for several years to explore stadium cites outside St. Petersburg. The team is under contract to play baseball at the Trop through 2027.
Kriseman, who said during his campaign that he may be open to letting the team pay to explore other stadium sites, plans to meet with team owners soon after he takes office on Jan. 2.
City Council member Wengay Newton said it would not make sense to spend money on the stadium if the team plans to leave. “Are we investing money and going to turn around after the first of the year and let them pay us to look for somewhere else?” he said.
Mayor Bill Foster recently repeated his warning that Major League Baseball does not see the Tampa Bay area as a viable baseball market. He said the city must honor its contract with the Rays and make the upgrades just as it expects the team to honor its agreement to play at the Trop.
“We are contractually obligated to do this as the Rays are contractually obliged to play 81 baseball games a year for the next 14 years,” he said.