Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which will mark its 20th anniversary season next spring, may soon be getting a makeover — one that will make the area overlooking center field into a year-round attraction.
The street-level picnic area behind the center-field wall would be reconfigured into a park where fans can stroll in and gaze out on the diamond, even in December, according to a Maryland Stadium Authority plan. The area would have expanded space for concessions and a rooftop viewing area.
"We believe the changes we're making to the Bullpen [Picnic Area] will be an extension of the Eutaw Street experience," said Greg Bader, director of communications for the Orioles, referring to the promenade between the stadium and the Camden Yards warehouse that is open to the public on days when games are not scheduled.
The Maryland Stadium Authority will be asking the Board of Public Works next Wednesday to approve a $1.8 million contract for renovations to the center field Bullpen Picnic Area.
Bader would not divulge many details because elements are being finalized. But in mid-November, a club source told The Baltimore Sun that the Orioles planned to unveil six statues of the modern franchise's Hall of Famers in the revamped area beyond the bullpens in left-center field.
Much like access to Eutaw Street between the warehouse and the stadium, he said, the new park will be closed at night. No changes are anticipated in parking fees around the stadium, he said.
An event revealing more specifics will be held next week, he said. In addition to the picnic area renovation, new restaurant concessions and retail are planned for the ballpark.
"There are going to be numerous changes being made [to the stadium] as we enter the 20th anniversary season," Bader said.
The current picnic area is on the street level behind the center-field fence and has a view of the area where pitchers warm up. Currently the space, filled with picnic tables and trees, is designed to hold up to 1,200 people and can be rented for private events but is used infrequently when the team is not playing.
"It's an area enclosed in the ballpark and is mostly dormant in the off-season," Bader said.
Tom Noonan, president and chief executive of Visit Baltimore, was excited by the prospect of more access to Oriole Park, which he said is one of the city's top tourist draws.
"I think it would have a natural pull for people. … You'll find a lot of activity there in the off-season," said Noonan, who added that hotels near the stadium were often asked for rooms with a view of the field. "They just want to look at home plate."
Baltimore resident and self-described "die-hard" Orioles fan Phil Walls, who runs LGC Sports Marketing, was concerned about any changes to his beloved stadium but understands that the team may be trying to draw a more social, younger crowd.
"I like Camden Yards the way it is. … I'd like to see them make upgrades on the field before worrying about the stands," said Walls, who often uses the picnic area with his 7-year-old during games as an alternative to sitting in their ticketed seats.
Walls said he sees many people in their 20s and 30s watching games from nearby bars and restaurants and avoiding the stadium altogether. The renovation may be a way to draw some of that crowd back, he speculated.
Frank Zafonte, owner of Frank & Nic's West End Grille, said he thought a year-round stadium would be good for area businesses, even if new food options pose competition.
"I'm always a fan of creating more eventful things to do on this side of the city," said Zafonte, whose restaurant and sports bar on West Pratt Street opened about three years ago. "I'm an advocate for more business. Competition breeds the best of everybody."
The bulk of the funds for the renovations will come from the Supplemental Improvements Fund for Maryland Stadium Authority structures, said authority Executive Director Michael J. Frenz. Additional funds for the renovation will come out of the authority's Operations Funds.
The construction contract is set to be awarded to the low bidder, Benaka Inc. of Ellicott City, according to the Board of Public Works agenda for next week's meeting.
Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.
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