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Let's Get Buzzin'! 

This Friday (March 15) is the first deadline for early season ticket sales in our last best chance to bring professional basketball back to New Orleans. It's time for a full-court press.

"The time to act is now," says Doug Thornton, general manager of the New Orleans Arena, which was built by the state primarily to attract an NBA franchise. "If we fail to meet these ticket goals and the NBA decides to block the re-location, we will forever be doomed."

Louisiana Senate President John Hainkel, R-New Orleans, hedges, but not by much. "It is certainly the best chance we will have in the next 10 to 20 years," Hainkel says.

This is New Orleans' third attempt to land an NBA team since 1979, when the Jazz moved to Utah. The league blocked an effort to lure the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1994. City leaders courted the Vancouver Grizzlies last year, but the team ended up in Memphis.

So what makes the Hornets different?

For starters, the team wants to come here. Equally important, Hornets owners George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge don't want to stay in Charlotte, where voters refused to approve an NBA-ready arena -- something New Orleans already has.

The Hornets represent a major opportunity to stimulate economic development in the metro area -- and to showcase other attractions, such as our local arts, music and cultural scene. Thornton notes that by gaining the Hornets, New Orleans is landing a $200 million business, with a payroll of $70 to $80 million, that directly employs 100 people.

But these numbers just hint at the overall economic impact. UNO economist Dr. Timothy Ryan estimates that the "New Orleans Hornets" can pump a total of $120.02 million into the state and local economies. "Over the next 10 years, the Hornets will bring in $862.99 million in new direct spending ... and will generate $106.10 million in new state and local tax revenue ... after all incentives are accounted for," Ryan says.

Those incentives include $15 million in improvements to bring the Arena up to NBA standards. Hainkel says $10 million of that sum can be allocated from last year's state surplus.

State Rep. John Alario has said that major funding for the 10-year lease with the team can be secured by shifting money from the local hotel-motel tax -- without tapping statewide revenue sources. In addition, the city has pledged $6.5 million for a team practice facility in eastern New Orleans, an area hungry for economic stimuli. During construction of the practice site, the Hornets will practice at the Alario Center on the West Bank.

There are other encouraging signs of what the Hornets might bring: the team pledges to share the limelight with our classical and performing artists. Imagine a symphony performance at halftime -- at center court. Picture local actors in costume bounding up the Arena aisles, or the works of our visual artists on display in the facility's VIP suites.

Can a pro sports franchise really support the local arts? "Absolutely," says Alex Martins, director of operations for the Hornets. "We have done that type of program in Charlotte. And we intend on bringing that type of program here to New Orleans with us."

But moving the Hornets is not a slam-dunk. An NBA relocation committee, led by skeptical NBA Commissioner David Stern, will meet here on March 20 to assess the economic ability of our area to support big-league hoops. The panel will consider a range of factors, including television market size, the size of our arena, the team's lease here, and last-ditch efforts to retain the team in Charlotte. A final vote will be taken at an NBA meeting April 6-7 in New York City.

The NBA is concerned about New Orleans' media market size, which ranks 43rd nationally. Charlotte ranks 27th. New Orleans' median household income is $38,800 a year. In Charlotte, it's $51,000.

We urge the NBA to take a long look at New Orleans, because we are unique among U.S. markets. While smaller than most NFL cities, New Orleans nonetheless has hosted more Super Bowls than any other NFL town. We are on the cusp of a turnaround with a new, pro-business mayor. A new spirit of optimism and enthusiasm permeates our business community.

Hornets owners Shinn and Wooldridge recognize these qualities in New Orleans, but we still have to prove ourselves worthy to the NBA. The best way to do that is to show immediate, significant community support for the team. The Hornets have set up shop at the Superdome, and local civic and business leaders have been buzzing to boost season ticket sales. It's time for all of us to "get buzzin'."

We urge our readers to help the team reach its "internal goal" of 8,000 season tickets, 2,400 club seats and 54 box suites by "partnering" with friends, relatives and co-workers to buy season tickets. Call (800) HORNETS to order tickets, or visit www.800hornets.net. Do it now.

The ball's in our court.

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