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pakowitz 02-20-2003 11:43 PM

New stadium? Before long it's outdated

Bob Tompkins / Staff Reporter/Columnist
Posted on February 20, 2003

OK, so the New Orleans Saints expect to have a nice new indoor practice facility built before the fall.

Fine. No problem. That will be good and help solve the almost annual summer problem when rain plays havoc with the team's preseason training camp.

But, near the end of any such discussion comes the inevitable trailer about the team's hoping it will eventually get a new stadium.

It's like hearing a fingernail running on a chalkboard.

A new stadium would be a great idea if the Saints were currently playing in a place like Veterans Stadium, a decrepit, smelly, rat-infested stadium that the NFL Eagles have abandoned in Philadelphia and that will be demolished after hosting baseball's Phillies this season.

But the Saints play in the Louisiana Superdome, which has hosted more Super Bowls than any other stadium, including the 2002 thriller won by the New England Patriots.

Saints owner Tom Benson is pushing for a new stadium with a retractable roof, with cost estimates running up to $450 million. Gov. Mike Foster signed a deal last July giving the Saints $186.5 million over 10 years after Benson complained that the 27-year-old Superdome is outdated and limits the club's profitability.

The stadium is 27 years old, not 72 years old.

It's enough to make me spit when I hear Benson or someone from the Saints trash the Superdome, which is an architectural wonder. It is the cornerstone project that helped renovate a once-seedy area dotted mostly with old warehouses.

It is a place that could be given a complete makeover for about $300 million, according to an architecture firm's report to the subcommittee of the NFL Stadium Advisory Commission.

Another architect says a new stadium with a retractable roof would cost between $350 and $375 million.

That the money would come from the New Orleans hotel-motel tax, and would not have to be financed by state taxpayers, makes the idea palatable to more people, obviously. Even New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin has softened his once hard stance against construction of a second downtown football stadium for the Saints.

Nagin hasn't committed to supporting a new stadium, but after a meeting with Benson he became more willing to listen, a spokeswoman for the mayor said last fall.

"I know Tampa Bay attributes a big part of their success to having a new stadium," Saints coach Jim Haslett said of last month's Super Bowl championship team. "The fans can get excited about things like that. I know the players are."

Some time ago, the state gave the Saints all Superdome revenue from Saints games and even surrendered the five percent rental fee it once charged.

That's not enough for the Saints. The Saints may, by contract, be locked into playing in the Dome through the 2005 season, but they can leave sooner, paying a penalty fee that could be loose change compared with what a potential buyer in another city might be willing to fork over for the franchise, which is probably worth over $600 million.

A "blue ribbon" committee has until June 2004 to make a recommendation on whether to renovate the Superdome, build a new stadium or do nothing.

If the Saints don't like the recommendation, they can leave.

The Superdome can survive without the Saints. And the Saints think they can thrive in a newer stadium. But at this rate, they'll want a new stadium in another 25 years, if not before.

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