New Orleans' pro teams reaffirm ties to battered city
NEW ORLEANS -- The city's two major league sports teams are making moves to calm fears about their future in New Orleans, which they were forced to abandon when Hurricane Katrina struck in late August.
Saints owner Tom Benson published a full-page letter in area newspapers and also sent it by e-mail to season-ticket holders on Wednesday, the same day Saints officials announced they would be donating more than $500,000 to New Orleans-area charities.
A day earlier, Hornets owner George Shinn launched a community relations initiative that he said would start the process of returning his team to New Orleans.
The bold-faced introduction to Benson's letter read: "Tom Benson wants to return to New Orleans."
"After reviewing the reports about our team and the abundance of wide-sweeping negative media commentary and columns, I offer this: No decision has been made about the future of the team," the letter said. "We have continued to operate and represent the city and fans of New Orleans. When the time is right and the factors that are yet unresolved are resolved, a decision of the future of the team will be made."
Meanwhile, Shinn went to Baton Rouge before Tuesday night's preseason game against the Miami Heat at LSU. Shinn announced the Hornets would be raising money for Habitat for Humanity homebuilding projects in the New Orleans area, an effort that began with a telethon during Tuesday night's game.
"New Orleans is our home, and we are committed to rebuilding New Orleans brick by brick and house by house," Shinn said. "The Hoops for Homes initiative is important to us as an organization, and to me personally, because it begins the process for our eventual return to a rebuilt and revitalized New Orleans."
Hurricane Katrina damaged the Louisiana Superdome and New Orleans Arena, the homes for the Saints and Hornets. Officials at the Superdome say that facility won't be available for football until 2006 at the earliest. The arena is expected to be ready for basketball by this spring.
In the meantime, the Saints have been based in San Antonio and the Hornets in Oklahoma City. Politicians and business leaders in both places have seized the opportunity to prove their cities would be suitable long-term homes for the franchises. San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger has even discounted New Orleans' ability to recover sufficiently from the disaster and stated he will work to keep the Saints in Texas permanently.
Benson, who has a home and business relationships in San Antonio, was silent for days after Hardberger's comments, then added to speculation about his team's plans by requesting cancellation of his lease of the Saints' training headquarters in suburban New Orleans.
Shinn has bought a home in Oklahoma City and been highly complimentary of the support for his team there, pointing to aggressive efforts by the business community to take part in sponsorship deals. The Hornets also took "New Orleans" off their home jerseys, bought the Internet domain name "okchornets.com" and changed the official name of the team to the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets.
All of those developments have made fans nervous in New Orleans. Both teams' owners addressed the matter this week, with the Hornets being more definitive about returning.
"It's not a matter of if we return to New Orleans, but when," Hornets spokesman Michael Thompson said on Wednesday.
Benson has been more noncommittal, saying his business is like many others that have had to re-evaluate their future in a hurricane-ravaged city, much of which was devastated by widespread flooding.
"No one within our organization has offered or made any official comment about what our long-term plans are," Benson said in his letter. "It is too early to determine, but my desire is to return to New Orleans."
Benson also shot back at criticism from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. Last week, Nagin said he was appalled by talk of the Saints relocating elsewhere, calling it was an insult to longtime fans who are struggling to rebuild their lives. Nagin also said he would not buy tickets to the four upcoming Saints games in Baton Rouge.
"Comments from our current mayor are made without a single phone call being placed to our team to check on our plans or to get the facts," Benson's letter said. "If the Saints and Tom Benson were as important to the city as the mayor of our city has claimed in the recent past, why such harsh comments, when a simple phone call could have saved him from embarrassment?"
Nagin was more conciliatory Wednesday, showing up for a public meeting on hurricane recovery sporting a Saints sweatshirt and cap. He was not apologetic, however.
"I expressed what most New Orleanians expressed: frustration with the fact that, while we're down on our knees -- why is this happening?" he said.
He said he wanted to show his support for the team after seeing Benson's full page ad expressing a desire to stay in New Orleans.
"So I went scrounging around and found this old T-shirt and I'm putting it on saying, 'Hey, I'm a Saints fan and I'd like to see them here."'
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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