Damage Control - Metairie Training Facility
Saints owner seeks to terminate lease because of training facility's poor condition, but state claims it's not that bad
Thursday, October 20, 2005
By Brian Allee-Walsh
Staff writer - Times Picayune
SAN ANTONIO -- Saints owner Tom Benson is seeking to terminate a lease agreement with the state on his Metairie training facility because of damages the property received during its occupation by federal agencies in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina.
The lease on the facility, which opened in 1996, ran concurrently with the stadium lease and was set to expire in 2018. The Saints are paying $1 a year on the property and are responsible for maintenance and operating costs.
Saints attorney Phil Wittmann stated Benson's position in a letter dated Oct. 11 and sent to officials with the National Guard, the Superdome Commission, FEMA, General Services Administration and SMG regional vice president Doug Thornton.
"As a result of these events," Wittman wrote, "the Saints were unable to return to their training facility and were forced to relocate their entire football operations to San Antonio, Texas, at a very substantial cost.
". . . It is not possible for the Saints to use the training facility in any capacity -- at least through the end of the current season -- generating additional costs. Indeed, these actions have effectively terminated the Saints' lease for the facility and have caused great and continuing damage to the team."
As of Wednesday, the 34-acre site at 5800 Airline Drive remains unoccupied, prompting Benson to question what security measures are being taken with respect to the premises.
"The Saints," Wittman wrote, "will not be in a position to reoccupy the training facility for some time (if ever) and they intend to hold the agency/agencies responsible for the damage caused to the facility during its occupation, and thereafter until the Saints' legal rights to the facility have been established."
When contacted Wednesday, Wittmann said he has not seen the training facility, which was built in 1996 with a combination of state and Saints funds, therefore he can't speak to the extent of the damages.
"I've heard reports that it was trashed," Wittmann said. "We've had an engineer walk the facility, and he's in the process of making a damage assessment. I assume somebody is going to come forward and take responsibility for the damages. We're not sure who's responsible for paying because nobody bothered to give us any written authorization to use the facility."
Superdome Commission president Tim Coulon said he received Benson's letter and plans to walk through the training facility next week with officials from FEMA, the state office of facility planning and insurance representatives.
"Unofficially, I'm being told that there is minimal damage," Coulon said. "But none of us have seen it personally."
A spokesman for the Louisiana National Guard said his unit was not based at the Saints' training facility but next door at Zephyr Field.
"I've checked up the line of command, and we have no knowledge of Louisiana National Guard forces being based at the Saints' facility," Lt. Col. Pete Schneider said. "We were running a major distribution center for food and water and a refueling station at Zephyr Field."
The letter states that the facility was taken over "by a Strike Team from the National Forest Service and/or representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency."
If the damage to the training facility is minimal, Coulon said he sees no reason why the Saints couldn't resume their business and football operations in Metairie and bus to Baton Rouge to play four upcoming home games at Tiger Stadium.
"They could be using it now," Coulon said. "We have no objections to that. But we need to first determine the amount of damage."
Because of events scheduled at the Alamodome, the Saints have been forced to find other practice sites in San Antonio for the next three weeks. In December, Saints officials said the NCAA women's volleyball Final Four could force their operations out of the Alamodome altogether.
With only one remaining game at the Alamodome, on Christmas Eve against the Detroit Lions, returning to their training facility in Metairie seems to be a viable option.
Saints center LeCharles Bentley said he sees no reason to uproot the team again this season and return to New Orleans.
"Everybody's settled in here now," Bentley said. "People have bought houses and signed apartment leases. It would be more of a burden to go back now. We'd have to uproot everybody here and go back there and get re-re-adjusted all over again.
"We've come this far. We might as well finish it out here."
NOTES: Benson continued to shake up his front office, accepting the resignation of marketing director Connie Kowal, chief assistant to the team's recently ousted executive vice president of administration Arnold Fielkow. Benson requested Kowal's resignation, sources said. Kowal signed a confidentiality agreement, ensuring he would be paid the remainder of his contract. Fielkow hired Kowal in 2003. The Saints have not named a successor for Fielkow or Kowal, although it is believed Benson and his granddaughter, owner/executive Rita Benson LeBlanc, will assume those duties in the interim. . . . Eleven players were listed on the league's official injury report, including safety Dwight Smith (knee), guard Jermane Mayberry (shoulder), guard Kendyl Jacox (knee), wide receiver Joe Horn (hamstring), guard Montrae Holland (knee) and tackle Jammal Brown (ankle).
The biggest damage may be "the writing on the wall".
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