Officials: Dome likely OK for some Saints games in '06
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Louisiana Superdome officials said Thursday that the stadium should be largely cleaned up from Hurricane Katrina and ready for the New Orleans Saints to play at least some of their games there in 2006.
However, the announcement came as San Antonio officials said they were working Saints owner Tom Benson to keep the team in Texas. The state must also respond to the team's assertions that its state-owned practice facility has been rendered unusable by damages caused by federal agencies in the weeks following the Aug. 29 storm.
The Superdome, severely damaged by high winds, should have a temporary roof in place within 10 days, said Doug Thornton, regional vice president for SMG, which manages the Superdome. An environmental assessment of its interior -- damaged by rainfall through holes in the roof and its use as a shelter for evacuees -- should be finished by Dec. 1, he said.
"We're working to make the Dome ready for the next season," Thornton said at a meeting of the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District Commission, the state board that oversees the Superdome.
The Saints have drawn criticism recently with shake ups in upper-level staff, as Benson apparently leans toward moving the team from New Orleans to San Antonio.
On Monday, Benson fired Arnold Fielkow, the team's top business executive since 2000 and an advocate for keeping the Saints in Louisiana. Fielkow has said that stance led to his dismissal. On Tuesday, Conrad Kowal, senior director of marketing and business development, resigned.
The team also sent a letter to the Louisiana National Guard and the stadium commission, saying their Jefferson Parish practice facility, leased from the state for $1 per year, has been damaged so badly by federal actions after the storm that the team cannot return "for some time [if ever]."
"These actions have effectively terminated the Saints' lease for the facility and have caused great and continuing damage to the team," said the letter, signed by lawyers for the team.
Tim Coulon, head of the stadium commission and the state's negotiator with the team, said Thursday that state officials planned to inspect damage at the practice facility next week.
"If there's some damage to those buildings, we're going to rectify that," Coulon said.
Asked it he thought the letter was Benson's first step toward leaving New Orleans, Coulon said he hoped not.
"I don't want to speculate, because I haven't heard from him," Coulon said. "But it's not too late [for Benson] to step up to the plate and be the good citizen."
Under the terms of the state's contract with the team, the Saints could argue that the storm has made the stadium unusable, move to another state and avoid paying an $81 million penalty, Coulon said.
Coulon said the state would fight such a move, probably in court or in arbitration.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco said she talked for some time with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue on Wednesday. She said he is committed to working with Louisiana, but also suggested that the game at LSU's Tiger Stadium on Oct. 30 "is not just a game but a very symbolic event and we should encourage as many people as possible to go."
She said she had not spoken to Benson.
"I'm planning to speak with him shortly," she said. "I needed to speak with the commissioner first."
Asked about Mayor Ray Nagin's suggestion that if the team does leave, the city should keep the name, she said, "I think it's brilliant."
But Blanco said she didn't talk to Tagliabue about that. "Let's just support the Saints. That's what I say."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press