ST. PETERSBURG — City leaders are planning to spend another $500,000 on upgrades and repairs to Tropicana Field requested by the Tampa Bay Rays.
Almost half of the money would go to replace four obsolete and worn air-conditioning units that cool separate back-of-the-house areas not connected to the stadium’s main cooling system. The walkway for fans moving from the stadium mezzanine to the seating area will be improved to give better views, and restrooms in the upper deck will be retiled.
There also will be repairs to expansion joints and exterior concrete sections.
“It’s basically non-glamorous bricks-and-mortar kinds of items,” said Rick Nafe, Rays vice president of operations and facilities.
The city council is scheduled to vote on the request Sept. 4. It comes on the heels of a $1.3 million upgrade that city leaders approved in November for the stadium that the Rays don’t want to call home.
The money helped to pay for the remodeling of the batter’s eye area and Rays 360, a 360-degree walkway fans use to walk around the field without using the concourse, which Nafe said has been a hit with fans.
The four cooling units were installed when the stadium, then known as the Florida Suncoast Dome, was built in 1989. Some are rusted and difficult to service, highlighting the fact that the aging stadium may need increasing investment over the remaining years of the city’s use agreement with the Rays, which expires in 2027.
That may raise concerns that the city will have made unnecessary repairs if the Rays leave. Unhappy with attendance, team owners for several years have asked the city for permission to look for a location for a new stadium.
Nonetheless, the city’s contract with the Rays requires it to make regular stadium improvements. Since the Rays began playing at the Trop in 1998, the city has shelled out $7.5 million for maintenance and upgrades. The money comes from a capital repair fund topped annually from the first $250,000 of the city’s share of ticket fees and $250,000 from the city’s share of the stadium’s naming rights. The account has a balance of $1 million.
“Our perspective has always been we have a use agreement that goes through 2027 and we’re going to maintain that building so that it’s viable through the terms of the use agreement,” said Joe Zeoli, managing director of city development administration. “We can’t afford to not have that building maintained in a first-class way.”
That approach is in contrast to the city’s cautious approach to spending on Al Lang Stadium, the 1977 waterfront baseball stadium that is home to the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer team. With the stadium’s future uncertain, the city has made only minimal investments in recent years, although it did earlier this year put out $250,000 for a new field.
Nonetheless, Rowdies owner Bill Edwards sued the St. Petersburg Baseball Commission, the nonprofit group that manages the stadium, citing the poor conditions as a breach of its contract with the group.
Even bigger outlay costs could loom through the remainder of the term at the Trop, such as the replacement of the stadium’s fabric-coated roof. Annual inspections show the roof is in good condition. But mindful that the stadium capital fund could not cover such a project, city officials have discussed applying to the county for a share of the $6 million in bed tax money that will be freed up in 2015 once construction loans for the Trop are paid off.
“It’s an example of projects that are out there that we may need to find some funding for whenever that may be,” Zeoli said.