Gov. Mike Foster has been openly hostile to New Orleans and admittedly doesn't care much for football. Yet, Foster and the Saints may get a new retractable-roof stadium in New Orleans approved in less than a year. That may be the biggest "bonus" for a lone playoff victory in NFL history.
Whodat say dey gonna move dem Saints?
Foster and the Saints were not close when talks began a few months ago, but both sides have come quickly toward the middle. They still have some ground to cover, but the momentum definitely tilts toward a deal.
The team began by saying it needed a new stadium and possibly some additional concessions right away at the Superdome. Foster initially seemed cool toward the idea of a new stadium.
Early press reports showed Saints owner Tom Benson raking in millions a year, which made him look greedy and didn't help the team's position. My sources tell me the published figures don't tell the whole story. As often happens in business, profits on paper don't always reflect actual cash flow. The Saints, I'm told, have substantially less cash flow than the published reports would indicate. It sounds as though that message hit a chord with Foster, a businessman himself.
Whatever the reason, Foster now is convinced a new stadium is doable. The big questions concern timing and financing. The Saints want the new stadium in five years; Foster's team is offering something more like 10, with some renovations and concessions immediately at the Superdome.
Benson, a car dealer by training and profession, compares the Superdome to a 25-year-old vehicle that has become seriously outmoded. There's only so much you can do to upgrade it, he says. He suggests saving the renovation costs and putting the money toward a new stadium right away.
The automotive analogy is one that most folks can grasp, but who pays $163 million for a car?
The more delicate issue may be financing. A new stadium could cost $450 million. The Saints say they could cough up $100 million, and the NFL reportedly could post another $100 million. Foster says the state could come up with about $150 million -- without raising taxes on Louisiana residents. That still leaves a gap of $100 million -- assuming no cost overruns. Remember, the Superdome was initially supposed to cost $35 million; it ultimately ran $163 million.
Both sides like the idea of the state financing its share by adding a penny to the hotel-motel tax and adding more tax on car rentals. The hotel-motel tax already goes toward the Superdome and the Arena.
Benson says if he gets a deal, he'll commit to keeping the Saints in New Orleans for 25 years -- and he'll make that commitment binding on his heirs. He's 73, and some of his grandkids may succeed him as team owner.
As I write this, the Saints and lawmakers are waiting to hear the latest proposal from Foster. He could present a package this week. That package will likely include other economic development projects in the New Orleans area, such as expanding the convention center, building a performing arts center in Jefferson, and a motor speedway in eastern New Orleans.
That's good politics for Foster and good news for the metro area. Next to those other projects, $150 million or so for a new stadium won't look outlandish.
I admit I'm a Saints fan, but I haven't exactly been Foster's biggest cheerleader. If he pulls this deal off, however, I may have to change my nickname for him -- from Governor Warbucks to Governor Whodat.