Commission moving on 4-month study of New Orleans stadium idea

Updated: August 5, 2004, 5:12 PM ET
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS -- A study of the governor's proposal to build the Saints a new stadium -- and pay for it with money initially meant to expand the city's convention center -- is moving forward and should be completed in four months, Superdome Commission Chairman Tim Coulon said Thursday.

Coulon said he has yet to hear from Saints owner Tom Benson about the proposal. But Gov. Kathleen Blanco has said Saints officials told her the concept has serious potential and was worth studying.

If studies show it would be possible to build a modern football stadium on an empty parcel of riverfront land adjacent to the convention center, debate in earnest will begin about whether that's the best use of available money.

"The idea has some merit and deserves a full airing," Coulon said before briefing the commission on the new stadium and several other matters in a regularly scheduled meeting. "This will air out a number of issues."

Some of the basic issues are whether the vacant land is big enough for a stadium and how the neighborhood would handle game day traffic. Beyond that looms debate about whether the originally planned 500,000-square-foot expansion makes sense in an evolving convention industry.

The city's hospitality industry says some kind of expansion and improvement of convention facilities is critical to sustain a hotel industry that has added about 11,000 rooms since 1996.

But a divide is emerging over whether the city simply needs more exhibition space or would be better off with a high-tech conference center that could accommodate a number of smaller business meetings.

The latter exists in other convention cities such as Orlando, to which New Orleans routinely loses out for the type of smaller meetings those facilities are meant to handle.

If those matters could be worked out in favor of a stadium, the state currently could spend more than $460 million on the project without raising any taxes. That's before an additional $100 million Benson pledged to contribute when he first began pushing for a new stadium several years ago.

Coulon said he would hope Benson's $100 million was "still in play."

Further matters concern whether the Superdome could still make money if a new stadium were built. Officials say the dome likely would be more profitable without the Saints so long as it could keep other events such as concerts, car and boat shows and sporting events other than football.

And still up for negotiations is whether the Saints, once a new stadium opened, would be willing to forego their current multimillion-dollar annual subsidy payments from the state.

A phone message left Thursday afternoon for Saints senior vice president of administration Arnold Fielkow was not immediately returned.

State officials say a new stadium should mean the end of subsidies, which were never meant as anything more than compensation for having to use the nearly 30-year-old Superdome. The Saints have said the dome lacks the premium seating and other revenue-generating amenities that new facilities possess.

Coulon said he does not blame the Saints for taking a cautious approach to Blanco's proposal, saying the team may be worried about the appearance of hijacking the original convention center proposal.

"It's a balance, because obviously convention center business is a major benefit to the city and state in generating tourist dollars, so the Saints are optimistic about the idea, but they want to see it all fit," Coulon said.

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Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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