Saints willing to stay in upgraded Superdome

Updated: March 30, 2005, 7:26 PM ET
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS -- Negotiators for the state and for the New Orleans Saints left a meeting on Wednesday saying it appears to be time to get Gov. Kathleen Blanco and team owner Tom Benson involved in negotiations on a new deal to keep the team in Louisiana.

"We've had a substantive discussion and covered a lot of ground today and in past meetings," Saints vice president Arnold Fielkow said. "At this point we think its appropriate for each side to go and review these with our principals."

The negotiators had made what Fielkow called "good movement." Neither he nor the state's point man, Tim Coulon, would discuss specifics.

The state wants to replace an agreement reached under the administration of former Gov. Mike Foster, which has forced Louisiana to borrow money to make the annual payments called for. Those payments will escalate to $23.5 million in the last years of the 10-year deal, which took effect in 2002.

The Saints want a long-term deal and so far have dropped one significant demand: Benson said he is willing to stay in a renovated Superdome rather than require a new stadium.

The sticking point is expected to be Blanco's demand that the team bear some of the costs of renovations or accept lower cash subsidies after renovations are complete.

"We've tried to make a case and make a compelling argument for the governor's overriding principles -- risk sharing and investment on the part of the Saints and clarifying the language on a long-term agreement," Coulon said.

Unless there are points that need clarification, Coulon agreed that it's now time for Benson and Blanco to get involved in the negotiations.

"I would say that from Day One each party has made some significant points and made some significant strides toward common ground," Coulon said. "We've debated back and forth the merits of our position versus the Saints' and that's where we are now."

Coulon said he expected a decision on a deal to be made in time to be put before state lawmakers, whose annual session begins April 25.

If a deal is not reached in time for legislative action this spring, the Saints and the state would continue to operate under the old agreement, which runs through 2010. The Superdome Commission has received permission to advertise bonds on the Dome to make up an estimated $9 million on this year's $15 million payment, due July 5.

Under the current deal, the Saints, after this season, could exercise an option that would allow them to pay an $81 million penalty and leave New Orleans. Benson said this week that if a deal isn't reached he might be willing to drop that clause only if the state gives up its right to end the current deal after the 2007 season by opting out of $70.5 million in payments to the team scheduled through 2010.

"I think we need to get some finality to this," Fielkow said. "There comes a point where you have to make a decision. I think we have to move on."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press