The man who calls the shots at the Superdome and New Orleans Arena, and who played a huge role in attracting the then-Charlotte Hornets to town -- accomplishments that earned him Gambit Weekly's New Orleanian of the Year honors in 2002 -- made a pledge to which he "staked my reputation, my career."
"We were thinking we could have the Superdome football-ready by late November (2006), by the Bayou Classic, maybe," Thornton recalls of last fall's assessments of the Dome's future post-Katrina. "During talks with the NFL, they asked if we could accelerate that schedule to have it football-ready in September. I said, 'That's a tall order,' and asked for two weeks so we could investigate the possibility. On Dec. 22, I called [NFL Executive Vice President] Roger Goodell and said, 'We can do it.' On Dec. 23, the Saints announced their commitment to staying."
After the Superdome became globally synonymous with the destruction and horror of Hurricane Katrina, and before Thornton's bold move, the forecast for the future of the Superdome, as well as the Saints' future in New Orleans, was uncertain at best, bleak at worst.
Instead, nearly a year later, the building hyped "as the crown jewel of the New Orleans skyline" is on track to complete a massive, $185.4 million renovation and reconstruction. In just under two months, on Sept. 25, the Saints will host their arch-rival Atlanta Falcons in a nationally broadcast Monday night game Thornton predicts "will be bigger than the franchise's first game at Tulane Stadium."
However, reaching this point -- where it has been concluded that the Superdome not only will be salvaged but also significantly enhanced, where the Saints will continue to honor a contract that keeps the team in the city until at least after the 2010 season -- was a road filled with obstacles, says Thornton, regional vice president for SMG, the company that operates the Superdome and New Orleans Arena.
"From September until December , we were trying to figure out the scope of the job and had no idea where we were going to get the money from," Thornton says. "We couldn't take the traditional approach to a state project; we didn't have time for that. The governor in late November signed an executive order allowing us to fast-track the project. Things moved quickly from that point."
Thornton credits a determined cooperation among the state, the Saints, Superdome management and FEMA as crucial to the project's success thus far. After the executive order, the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District moved to refinance its bonds, and issued $65 million in new debt, allowing for $40 million to be applied to capital repairs at the Superdome as well as $25 million for operational expenses. In addition, FEMA will pay 90 percent of $130 million construction costs, with the remaining 10 percent covered by the state. The NFL provided a $15 million grant.
"To really understand the extent and magnitude of this job, you had to have walked through the Dome after Katrina," Thornton says. "From all the water damage and from housing evacuees for so long, it was completely destroyed."
Broadmoor Construction, a division of Boh Brothers, was awarded the contract. Certain tasks had to be completed first, such as $32 million in repairs to the roof. From there, workers tackled myriad details inside the 2 million-square-foot Dome, including installing new dry wall, plumbing, flooring, ceiling tiles and concession equipment.
"I don't think the average fan will be able to see all the work that's been completed, but they'll certainly notice a number of enhancements that have been made," Thornton says. "It was time for the building to be repaired. There are improvements we've wanted to make for a while, but didn't have time, because it would require us to shut down for a season. Katrina forced us to do that, so we took advantage of the timetable we have."
Fans immediately will be struck by a sense of "brightness" inside the Dome, Thornton says, a feat achieved by new carpeting, ceiling tiles and lighting. The scoreboards and video monitors have been improved in terms of both size and graphics quality and capability. An LED ribbon board, just like the narrow flash of lights that circle the New Orleans Arena to the delight of Hornets fans, has been installed. The luxury suites have been completely redone, and 12,000 new leather seats have been installed in the club level. Also, concession stands now boast brighter menu boards and stainless-steel counter tops.
There's plenty of cause for Saints fans to be excited about the new season. The club is being led by a new coach and a new quarterback, and there's an excited buzz about the selection of the electrifying Reggie Bush as the team's No. 1 draft pick. Plus, having the team back at home in New Orleans following a dismal 2005 season split between Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge and San Antonio is symbolic of the city's post-Katrina progress and direction.
"There is going to be a tremendous amount of attention paid to this (first) game and to the Superdome," Thornton says. "The Dome became a poster child for all the misery and suffering with Katrina. Now, it's going to send a message of where the city stands, of the progress we've made."