Anyone in metro New Orleans who has had misgivings about Gov. Bobby Jindal's decision to spend $50 million in state money to keep a chicken processing plant open in the north Louisiana town of Farmerville now has a good reason to crow about that deal: It's going to keep the Saints in New Orleans.
Cut through all the fine print in the contracts and the rhetoric from rural lawmakers about subsidizing Saints owner Tom Benson, and the cold, hard political reality is that both deals need legislative approval — and that means they need each other.
Jindal Chief of Staff Timmy Teepell negotiated the $50 million deal to help Foster Farms, a California company, buy the shuttered Pilgrim's Pride chicken processing plant in Farmerville. That deal pledges $40 million toward Foster Farms' $80-million purchase price and another $10 million for improvements to the plant. The deal, if approved by lawmakers, will save at least 1,300 jobs and keep several hundred area chicken farmers in business. Until the Saints deal came along, legislative approval was far from certain.
Locally, Superdome Commission Chairman Ron Forman and Dome management exec Doug Thornton renegotiated the state's costly deal with the Saints, producing a long-term contract to keep the team in New Orleans and save the state at least $17 million a year in subsidy payments to team owner Tom Benson. The latest annual payment to the Saints is $23.5 million; under the new contract, subsidies are capped at $6 million and could be as low as zero, depending on the team's revenues.
The Saints deal also requires the state to spend $85 million on Superdome improvements, which will produce wider concourses, more concession areas, more seating and more suites — all of which should help the Saints net more revenue. In addition, Benson will buy the vacant Dominion Tower building, the New Orleans Centre mall and a 2,100-space parking garage from California real estate mogul Judah Hertz — and rent much of it back to the state, which is looking to upgrade some 320,000 square feet of office space it currently rents at less desirable sites across New Orleans. Benson will spend more than $20 million restoring and building out the state's new office space, and rent the mall area back to the Superdome Commission for use as a sports-themed "festival plaza" on game days. The dome and Benson will share plaza revenues.
The Saints deal thus saves the state millions in guaranteed annual subsidy payments to Benson, but commits the state to spending millions on office space and dome improvements. Why is that a good deal? Because the state needed to upgrade and consolidate offices for some 30 state agencies here anyway, and it needed to invest in dome improvements — or spend hundreds of millions more on a new stadium to keep the franchise in New Orleans.
Then, of course, there are the benefits for the city. A renovated Dominion Tower and New Orleans Centre should renew private-sector interest in a downtown area that has not come back since Katrina.
Bottom line: This is a much better deal for the state than the previous deal.
Local lawmakers quickly embraced the Saints deal, but to secure legislative approval they will have to trade votes with north Louisiana leges who want their chicken plant. If you subscribe to Bismarck's view that good laws are like good sausage — not easy to watch being made — these two deals offer a fine example of chicken wieners.
Cluck, cluck. Go Saints.