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Don't Gut Phase IV



Governor Kathleen Blanco's talk of a new stadium on riverfront land that has already been dedicated to Phase IV of the Morial Convention Center is the worst idea since the doomed riverfront expressway. Nothing about it makes sense, unless your priority is to help the Governess reward some of her top contributors with huge legal, architectural, engineering and construction contracts.

But let's stick to the thing itself. Right now the Saints play in the Superdome, which is still one of the best arenas in the world (despite what the Saints say). Could it be better? Sure. But its location could not be improved upon in a hundred years. Along with the riverfront convention center, one of the few "big ideas" that Louisiana and New Orleans did right in the last 50 years was build the Superdome right where it is. It's in the heart of downtown, within walking distance of thousands of first-class hotel rooms, yet it's just far enough from the French Quarter and the CBD that it doesn't tie up downtown traffic during big events. Located next to an expressway interchange, it can be reached via multiple exits and from several major streets at ground level.

It's location is a home run -- or, in football parlance, a touchdown and a two-point conversion.

A riverfront stadium, by contrast, would be in a corner of town, so to speak, without adequate expressway access and egress. Oh, sure, there's a Tchoupitoulas Street exit, but that exit -- and Tchoupitoulas itself -- is nowhere near up to grade for a football stadium. A riverfront stadium would bottleneck all traffic going to and from events there, whereas the Superdome is accessible from all four sides.

And please, don't try to sell me on the notion of riverboat cruises to a new stadium. The recent accident at the Algiers ferry landing ought to be reason enough to kill that idea -- as if people need another reason not to take a slow boat to a Saints game.

But the best reason not to build a new stadium on the riverfront is money. Not the cost of the new stadium, but rather the return on the state's (and the city's) investment there. The state has already approved bonds for Phase IV of the Morial Convention Center, which is used several hundred days each year and brings many millions more into the local and regional economy than do the Saints, who play 10 local games a year.

So why cut back on land that's wildly productive in order to build something that will be less productive? It just doesn't make sense, unless your agenda is something other than economic development.

I'm not saying we should abandon the idea of a new stadium. I'm simply saying it should not -- not in a million years -- replace any portion of Phase IV. Recent talk of whether Phase IV is really needed misses the point of what Phase IV is all about. Phase IV is not just additional exhibition space; it's a totally different kind of space for our convention center. It will cater to the kinds of gatherings (smaller, higher-end, much more high-tech) for which all cities will compete in the coming decades. It keeps New Orleans in the hospitality game, and at the forefront of it.

There's no question that the Saints want a new stadium. The threshold question that Blanco and others should be asking is not how to give them one (and I do mean give them one), but rather whether the state and the city need a new stadium. If the answer to that question is yes, then the next question should be where to put it.

Blanco's talk of a new stadium on the site of Phase IV ignores both those questions -- or presumes the answers.

I'm not alone in thinking that we already know the answer to the second question. If we need a new stadium, tear down the Dome and build a better one right where it is. Like the Chicago Bears did during the renovation of Soldier Field, the Saints could play in LSU Stadium while the Dome is either renovated or rebuilt. In the meantime, Blanco should drop the insane talk of cutting back on Phase IV.

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