Benson to buy office building as part of deal to keep Saints in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS -- Saints owner Tom Benson intends to buy a high-rise office tower next to the Louisiana Superdome, and the state has pledged to lease much of the building back as an incentive for Benson to keep his NFL team in New Orleans long-term, a state senator said Thursday night.

"I don't have all the details to it, but I understand that is going to be part of the overall package that's being put together for the Saints," state Sen. John Alario told The Associated Press. "It seems to be a good approach because it puts that property back into commerce and would reduce, I'm told, the state's annual allocation to the Saints."

The state of Louisiana and the Saints currently are in the midst of sensitive negotiations aimed at extending the team's lease of the Superdome until 2025.

Currently, the Saints' lease runs through 2018, but a 10-year, $186 million package of escalating cash payments from the state to the team runs out after the 2010 season. At that time, the Saints could break their lease by paying a $15 million penalty.

However, Benson has said he hopes to keep the Saints in New Orleans long term and has helped put a bid together for the city to host the 2013 Super Bowl. League owners are slated to vote on where to award that Super Bowl during meetings May 18-20 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but New Orleans' bid would suffer if the Saints' future remains in doubt when the vote takes place.

Saints spokesman Greg Bensel declined comment on Benson's intentions regarding the office tower.

Doug Thornton, senior vice president for SMG, the company that manages the state-owned Superdome, said he couldn't discuss details of ongoing lease negotiations. He said only that progress was being made and that he was hopeful a deal would be done before the NFL's meetings next month.

Alario, D-Westwego, a powerful longtime New Orleans area lawmaker, said he had been briefed about the state's proposal, but he said he doesn't know the full scope of the plans or the details of the sale of the building, formerly known as the Dominion Tower.

But of the building sale, Alario said, "I understood Benson would buy it and then the state would then rent space from him." Alario said the state would rent that space from Benson rather than replace a state office building in downtown New Orleans.

The building has been empty since being damaged by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. The building's owners have made basic repairs and have said the tower is ready for use again. When the state of Louisiana looked at buying the 26-story building for itself last year, the sale price was around $45 million. It wasn't immediately clear what Benson would pay for it.

Alario said the state also was talking about making improvements to the Superdome, which would allow the Saints to make more money on game days.

Of a deal, Alario said, "The word I was getting is that this was getting closer."

Currently, the state owes the Saints three remaining payments of $23.5 million, starting this June 30. The state hopes to reduce such annual cash payments going forward but at the same time continue to provide financial incentives for Benson to keep his NFL team in small-market New Orleans.

"It looks like the goal seems to be to try to get out of direct subsidies to them," Alario said. "It would be indirect, I guess. But it still would not be like writing a check."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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