There's an unexpected calm in the lobby of Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. Below the large windows over the ticket counters and the gallery of doors along the airport entrance, traveler traffic moves at a gentle pace — despite it being the day of the Sugar Bowl. The frenzy of last-minute sports fans filled the lobby the day before, and they'll return tomorrow, when airport communications director Michelle Wilcut expects a mass exodus.
"Right now is the quiet part," she says from an office overlooking the lobby.
But the quiet part isn't and hasn't been quiet at all. Contractors and electricians work from early morning hours through afternoons filling holes, painting walls, laying carpet and installing flat-screen TVs. The notoriously drab airport is getting a $300 million retro-futuristic red-and-brown makeover — a design (with floating art pieces, flat-screen flight monitors, natural light) that just a month earlier would be unrecognizable to travelers familiar with MSY.
Iftikhar Ahmad, who has directed the airport since May 2010, sits at the head of a long conference table, his back to the runway outside his office. Ahmad and his staff are preparing a plan for a game much bigger than the Sugar Bowl — in a matter of weeks, Ahmad anticipates more than 42,000 travelers at his airport for Super Bowl XLVII. His staff has kept a fast-paced construction schedule. Most concessions and restaurants will open Jan. 15. But Ahmad has the task of creating the first impression for thousands of new visitors, many of whom will see the heavily touted post-Hurricane Katrina "renaissance" for the first time.
"The Super Bowl for us is just one event," he says. "Then it's Mardi Gras, convention business, cruise business — we're not going to stop. We didn't just prepare for Super Bowl then go back to our old ways; we've been working hard the last two-and-a-half years to change this airport in a positive way. We hope they feel it, they see it, when they're here."
Visitors leaving the airport in cars, however, meet traffic detours and construction — and when they enter the city, they dodge another round of detours and construction focused on the downtown area in the shadow of the Superdome. Mayor Mitch Landrieu and city officials are confident the city will be ready for the national championship game. They have, after all, spent several years planning, legislating and enforcing for a Super Bowl — the city's greatest and most expensive commercial.
New Orleans now ties Miami as the most frequent Super Bowl host. (New Orleans hosted nine Super Bowls, in 1970, '72, '75, '78, '81, '86, '90, '97 and 2002. The Superdome also is the most used Super Bowl venue; Tulane University also was used by the Super Bowl three times, in 1970, '72 and '75.)
The National Football League likes to up the ante each year for its big game. With concerts, its weeklong NFL Experience, concessions, fan events and dozens of other activities, the Super Bowl is a massive event well beyond the Astroturf. Indianapolis, which hosted last year's game, spent more than $8 million (on top of more than $180 million on city infrastructure, like street repair) for the 40,000 game attendees and thousands of other visitors.
But Indianapolis' Capital Improvement Board estimated the city lost $1 million — it only received $7 million from tax revenue. (This was on the heels of opening Lucas Oil Stadium, a $720 million project that broke ground in 2005 and required a tax increase to cover its expenses. The stadium opened in 2008, a few months before Indianapolis won its bid for Super Bowl XLVI.)
The city still received international visibility. Headlines in the Indianapolis Star heralded the event: "As millions watch, Indy shines in her close-up," "City put heart into the game," and "City's efforts made Hoosiers proud."
When New Orleans hosted the big game in 2002, the city and NFL scrambled to come up with a plan following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, which postponed the event and pushed the game into the Carnival calendar.
"This time we've had a few more years to perfect the plan, not just a few months. Super Bowl XVII is a lot bigger," says Frank Supovitz, NFL vice president of special events. In 2002 terms, it's way bigger: Supovitz says viewership has increased more than 28 percent since then, when more than 86 million viewers watched the New England Patriots defeat the St. Louis Rams and saw U2's Bono reveal an American flag under his leather jacket. In 2012, more than 111 million people tuned in.
New Orleans won its "perfect 10" bid in May 2009 at the NFL's annual Spring Ownership Meeting in Florida, beating out Arizona and Florida as potential bowl sites.
"It seems like eons ago we were standing in front of 32 stone-faced owners," says Jay Cicero, president of the GNO Sports Foundation and executive director of the city's Super Bowl committee. "We couldn't tell if they gave a rat's cheek about us. ... It wasn't until the commissioner came into the room."
When Landrieu took office in 2010, the city got to work, well knowing the impending city and federal road projects and general cleanup before the game. As New Orleans City Council Vice President Jackie Clarkson noted at the city's Super Bowl traffic plan announcement last month, "It's our job to pass, legislatively, any changes — anything that has to be done."
When the visitor floodgates open, the airport will be first to greet them.
"There is an impression we need to make on these folks coming in," Ahmad says. "Our customer service team is also working on beads, doubloons, all that stuff that comes with New Orleans, so as folks are coming in, they get a taste of New Orleans as soon as they step foot in Louisiana. We're going to have live music on both levels. They'll play jazz."
Last month, food news website Eater NOLA slammed MSY ("it sucks," "it sucks hard," "we do not endorse eating at MSY") for its pre-2013 concessions offerings. Among restaurants opening this month at the airport: Dooky Chase, WOW Cafe and Wingery, two Copeland's, Ye Olde College Inn, Abita Bar and Zatarain's Kitchen. The airport also opened a slate of new retail businesses, including New Orleans Saints and Hornets merchandisers and Perlis. Ahmad says during the Super Bowl weekend rush, many businesses and concessions will stay open 24 hours.
Visitors to the airport then can walk to a new consolidated rental car facility. Despite a dispute between the airport's contractors and the rental car office contractors in the $95 million facility, Ahmad says it will open Jan. 23. "From the progress we've seen, it'll be ready," he says. "We feel good about our readiness, and we're comfortable with what the airport will look like."
New taxi services also will be available. In November, the New Orleans City Council ruled that new taxi criteria (including air-conditioning, security cameras and credit card machines) must extend to cabs operating at the airport. In October, cab drivers protested inside and out of City Hall, blocking Poydras Street and demanding more time to comply with a threat of a taxi shortage before the Super Bowl. (During a press conference a few floors above the protest, Landrieu said the new rules will bring the city up to speed with the rest of the country, adding, "I'm sorry you feel disgruntled.")
Cabs had until Dec. 31, 2012, to comply with the new rules. That deadline has been extended to Jan. 17.
On Dec. 5, CBS announced a "Super Bowl Park" at Jackson Square. The network's weeklong "central broadcast center" will host a chunk of its regular programming there, including talk shows The Talk and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson (both with live audiences), as well as Face the Nation With Bob Schieffer, its morning and evening news broadcasts and its Super Bowl day programming (it'll devote seven hours to game-day coverage).
Super Bowl Park will consist of four shared outdoor sets inside Jackson Square, with another set across the street at Washington Artillery Park. All shows will share equipment, office space and staff. The network said, "Jackson Square, the historic park in the heart of the famed French Quarter, will serve as the backdrop for CBS's coverage" — though it noted the park will "remain open to the public."
In November, Landrieu and the New Orleans City Council floated a pair of ordinances aimed at removing visitors from the park between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., and stopping or standing in the pedestrian mall surrounding the park would result in a $500 fine. Jackson Square artists, who are allowed to set up beginning at 5 a.m., agreed the city needed to enforce a cleaner park, but a curfew was too harsh. (Jackson Square artist and blogger Lance Vargas wrote, "The message seems to be, 'Be in a bar drinking or go back to your hotel.'")
According to District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer's legislative director Nicole Webre, the ordinances were assigned to the Governmental Affairs Committee, where they were pulled from the agenda. City officials dismissed talk that the ordinances were related to CBS' Super Bowl plans.
In October 2011, the City Council passed an ordinance that read, "It shall be prohibited for any person or group of persons to loiter or congregate on Bourbon Street for the purpose of disseminating any social, political or religious message between the hours of sunset and sunrise." Though it sounds contrary to the First Amendment, the ordinance aimed at religious proselytizers who potentially could ignite a hostile crowd — especially when the city fills for Super Bowl and visitors empty onto Bourbon Street.
NOLA Femmes writer Kalen Wright saw the Jackson Square ordinances as another attempt to build a "constitution-free zone" in the French Quarter and surrounding areas, adding "Why is our city's administration refusing to implement genuine and visible improvements to enhance Jackson Square?"
The ordinance is being challenged in federal court.
Beginning at 6 a.m. Monday, Jan. 28, the city will enforce a "clean zone," boxing in most of downtown and the French Quarter, extending from Earhart Boulevard to Calliope Street, Religious to Orange streets, across the river to the West Bank levee, and continuing on the East Bank to Elysian Fields, North Claiborne and Tulane avenues, and North Broad Street to Earhart. The boundaries will be in force until 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 5, on all sidewalks, streets and neutral grounds. The "clean zone" prohibits setting up viewing stands, stages, tents, concessions and vendors, among other things, even if you've received a permit for Mardi Gras. "Clean zone" violators could face a $500 fine or up to six months in prison.
Street closures already are in effect. On Saturday, Jan. 5, the Interstate 10 Superdome exit at Poydras Street closed, as well as streets surrounding the Dome (except on New Orleans Hornets game days). On Jan. 26, all Poydras exits will close, as well as riverbound traffic on Poydras Street.
Last week the city announced "intermittent street closures" as the Loyola Avenue streetcar line prepares to open Jan. 28.
On Feb. 1, the city will close a perimeter around the Superdome bordered by Poydras Street, West Stadium Drive, Howard Avenue and Poydras Plaza. Most of the street repairs around the Dome — which scatter drivers with awkward detours around City Hall, the Main Library and Poydras — won't impact drivers, at least on game day; the city will enforce a "no-drive zone" around the Superdome (while there's also a "no-fly zone" above the city).
The Landrieu administration repeatedly has doubled down on its promise that the city will complete most of its major street repairs before the big game. Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant anticipates most city projects will wrap by Jan. 15. At a Sept. 26 Super Bowl committee meeting, Landrieu told reporters, "All of the road projects are going to be done in time for the Super Bowl. I know it doesn't look like it. But you can take it to the bank."
Last week, Landrieu announced the city repaired more than 23,000 streetlight outages since his administration took office in May 2010. More than $10 million in street repairs in the French Quarter also wrapped up — the NFL will occupy a bulk of the historic neighborhood and the CBD.
Woldenberg Park will become "Verizon Super Bowl Boulevard," Cicero says — "literally a Super Bowl Jazz Fest," where New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival mastermind Quint Davis will assemble the lineup. Massive "XLVII" Roman numerals will float on a barge on the Mississippi River. At the Superdome, Supovitz says space devoted to game-day events will expand to "four times the size of Champions Square."
The NFL, VH1 and CMT will host a concert series at The Sugar Mill. On Jan. 31, the Wyndham Riverfront Hotel on Convention Center Boulevard will turn into "Bud Light Hotel," with a pedestrian bridge linking it to a parking lot across the street near the Hilton New Orleans Riverside. The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center unveils its $60 million expansion Jan. 25.
Super Bowl XLVII is Sunday, Feb. 3.; the competing teams arrive Jan. 27. New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) Director Justin Augustine says RTA " will deploy every piece of rolling stock" in its fleet, and its pre-game plan will go into effect Jan. 26 to accommodate the traffic.
New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) Superintendent Ronal Serpas says the NOPD will enforce a "23-hour-a-day traffic plan" — officers will direct traffic from all intersections around the Dome, and SkyWatch mobile surveillance towers will form a square around the "downtown area." Serpas says NOPD has a "robust" foot beat for the game and a traffic contingency plan to route traffic the day after the Super Bowl.
At the airport, security checkpoints will expand from five to seven.
"The NFL's expectations increased post-9/11," Wilcut says. "NFL officials have been flying back and forth here, and each time they land (they think) ... 'Oh my god, what has changed?'"
"The city is going to look spectacular," Landrieu says. "I know it's been inconvenient. ... (The Super Bowl) is a great opportunity to show what the city looks like (after) its resurrection, redemption, resilience — (and) it will not be the last one we get."