New stadium could cost $450 million

NEW ORLEANS -- The Saints want a new stadium but they will most likely have to accept a renovated Superdome, the governor, state lawmakers and members of the New Orleans tourism industry said on Thursday.

"We have many needs in this city -- schools, roads," said state Rep. Jim Tucker, R-Algiers. "The convention center is my priority. It will generate the most jobs. A new stadium for the Saints is way down on the list."

Gov. Kathleen Blanco spent most of the day Thursday in New Orleans discussing various options.

Blanco came to New Orleans to meet with regional officials over the possibility of building the NFL team a new stadium as part of a stalled plan to expand the city's giant convention center.

Saints owner Tom Benson has threatened to move while calling the Superdome unacceptable and outdated.

As part of Blanco's push to renegotiate the Saints' current deal with the state, she asked for a review of tying a new stadium to the expansion of the New Orleans Convention Center. That idea was not popular with tourism officials at Thursday's briefings.

"The hospitality industry is completely united behind the fact that the two issues should be de-linked," said Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Tourism and Convention Center. "Phase four of the convention center is the most important
economic project in this city. It's what drives the business of the city."

The industry also opposes raising the hotel and motel tax again to fund payments to the Saints.

"We have a very high hotel tax now," Perry said. "So that is not the preferred remedy."

Renovating the Superdome made more sense in a poor state, said Rep Karen Carter, D-New Orleans. Renovating the Superdome could be done for about $150 million as compared to $450 million to build a new stadium, of which the Saints have said the team and the NFL could pitch in $100 million.

"Whether the Saints are here or not, the renovation needs to take place at some point," Carter said. "Even if the Saints were to leave you would need to maintain the facility."

A new source of money to make the state's payments to the Saints will have to come from the New Orleans region because of a lack of support from the rest of Louisiana, Blanco said Thursday.

"It's highly unusual for the state to be paying an NFL team cash," Blanco said during an appearance before the City Council. "The rest of the state doesn't support it."

The governor warned a more immediate problem is making the $15 million annual incentive payment to the team -- approved by the Legislature during the administration of Gov. Mike Foster. The state had to borrow $8 million from another fund this year after
the New Orleans-area hotel tax, the supposed funding source, came up short.

Blanco said the administration had not come up with any new funding sources and she doubted that in light of the tourism-convention business dropoff the hotel tax would ever be enough.

After another $15 million payment due next year, the annual payment to the Saints goes to $20 million for two years and $23.5 million annually until the incentive deal expires in 2010. Blanco called that deal "unusually generous."

The governor said the Saints were not inclined to contribute to a Superdome renovation but later told reporters that point might be subject to negotiation.

Blanco said that next year, because of changes in federal matching funds, the state could face a $400 million shortfall in its health care system.

"That's more than any entity in state government can tolerate," Blanco said. "So, am I going to spend the money on Saints or on health care? It's going to definitely go to health
care first."

Members of the City Council were cool at best to the idea of paying for a new stadium.

Council member Jay Batt said that the Superdome was still good enough to host such national events as the Sugar Bowl and the Super Bowl. He called Benson's position on the new stadium "reprehensible" in light of the city's financial problems.

Council member Jackie Clarkson, who served in the state House when the Saints deal was approved, said she and other legislators had been told that the Superdome would be renovated so it could be used for additional purposes, thus paying for the team's deal.

Clarkson said the Saints could still leave at some future date, even if the team got a new stadium.

"If the Saints leave after we re-engineer the Dome, then we have a facility for the state of Louisiana," she said.