Saints, Louisiana agree to deal to keep team in New Orleans through 2025

NEW ORLEANS -- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Saints owner Tom Benson said Thursday that they need lawmakers and residents to back their plan to keep the NFL team in New Orleans through 2025 and revitalize a part of downtown that has been abandoned since Hurricane Katrina struck the city.

"I got a lot of confidence in our city and our state, and the old saying is, I'm putting my money where my mouth is, OK?" Benson said following the formal announcement of the agreement at a press conference inside the Louisiana Superdome. "We're not just talking. We're investing. I encourage everybody in this community to do that, too."

The Benson family plans to spend nearly $90 million to buy and rehabilitate a downtown office high-rise and former shopping mall next to the Superdome with the promise of leasing two-thirds of the office space to state agencies, along with the mall and a parking garage.

Meanwhile, Jindal said he will ask the state Legislature to approve spending $85 million to redesign and improve the Superdome -- including expanding field-level seating and adding new exclusive lounges, along with suites and concession stands. The governor said those funds would come from a fiscal-year 2007-08 surplus of more than $850 million.

"We have to convince the entire Legislature ... that this is a good investment for the state," Jindal said. "We're talking about investing in a state facility. We're talking about competing not only for a Super Bowl but other significant events. ... The facts are on our side."

Benson and Jindal wanted a long-term extension in place by this spring to improve New Orleans' bid to host the 2013 Super Bowl. It would be the city's 10th Super Bowl and the seventh in the Superdome, an iconic, 34-year-old structure that has hosted some of the nation's most memorable sporting events, world-famous musical acts and even the late Pope John Paul II.

Jindal said the NFL "made it very clear they would not be considering New Orleans unless a long-term deal was in place."

"I'm optimistic, whether it's 2013 or in future years, we will be seeing Super Bowls coming back to New Orleans," Jindal added.

Negotiations over the lease extension at the state-owned Superdome have been ongoing for months. However, news of the agreement Thursday didn't go over well with all legislators.

Rep. Karen St. Germain, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said she disagrees with "giving more money to a multimillionaire" when the state has other unfunded needs and services.

"We're finding a solution to keep a football team, but we're not finding a solution for education," said St. Germain, who represents rural Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans.

The new lease would greatly reduce direct cash subsidies from the state to the NFL team, which rise to $23.5 million this year and expire after the 2010 season.

Starting in 2011, the state's direct cash inducement to the Saints would be capped at $6 million and could be as low as zero depending on how much income the team receives as a result of stadium improvements. The cap on state inducements will rise by a small percentage over the course of the lease extension.

Jindal said the new deal would save the state about $280 million over what it would have paid if current subsidies had been extended.

Meanwhile, the state would pay annual rent of $10.4 million -- which would increase incrementally over time -- to lease large portions of Benson's new downtown property for 15 years, beginning in July 2011.

The property, which is located next to the stadium, has been abandoned since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 and was known as the Dominion Tower and the New Orleans Centre mall. The Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, the state agency that oversees the dome and neighboring New Orleans Arena, intends to join with the Bensons to demolish part of the mall and turn it into a sports-themed plaza.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin fully supports the Jindal-Benson plan, noting that the city has agreed to pay for new landscaping and lighting and to lower property taxes "almost down to zero."

Nagin applauded Benson's planned investments, given area residents' long-standing attachment to the Saints and the emotional lift brought on by their return to the storm-ravaged city in 2006.

"I'll never forget that first game in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, which provided our citizens with so much balm and salve for the hurt that we were experiencing," Nagin said. "It really helped to propel this city and give people confidence that we would start to move in a positive direction."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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