NEW ORLEANS -- When the manager of the Louisiana Superdome surveys the stadium's latest and most extensive renovation project, he finds himself thinking more about his city's hopeful future than its troubled recent past.
A six-year, $336 million, multiphase transformation of one of America's best-known sporting venues is nearly complete -- enough so that spectators will get to see the latest changes in person when the dome reopens this weekend, for the first time since last football season, to host the Essence music festival.
"It doesn't look like the same building it did in 2005, that's for sure," said Doug Thornton, vice president of SMG, the company that manages the state-owned stadium.
During a recent stroll through a new, field-level bowl that now have most of its 24,500 seats in place, Thornton reflected on how much the Superdome had changed since Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29, 2005.
The storm tore open the roof and flooded surrounding streets, allowing mold to fester while tens of thousands of evacuees who had taken shelter in the stadium stewed in summer heat without air conditioning nor working bathrooms. Most evacuees milled around field-level stands, which have been deconstructed, removed and rebuilt atop a new steel support system as part of $50 million in work performed during the last five months.
The changes to the field-level stands represent the latest of numerous upgrades since the restoration of the stadium began in late 2005. The initial phases included gutting and refinishing suites, corridors, concession stands and bathrooms throughout the stadium. New electrical, video and audio systems were installed. All seats were either cleaned or replaced, and four large club lounges with new windows offering views of downtown where built on the second level.
"You walk around now, and you don't see too many vestiges of the past," Thornton said. "Many of the bad memories of Katrina have been suppressed. ... It's like a brand new building inside the old shell."
Even the outer shell looks new. Last year, the original aluminum siding, faded a dull gray by three-plus decades of Louisiana sun and dented by flying storm debris, was replaced. The new siding restored the hulking, downtown stadium to the original champagne color it had when it was host to its first Super Bowl in 1978.
The Superdome is scheduled to stage its seventh Super Bowl in February 2013, capping a 13-month span in which it also will be home for college football's BCS national championship next January and the NCAA men's basketball Final Four the following spring.
"We've been working nonstop for, really, six years to reinvent the dome, and when you look around now, it does make you think about what's going to happen," Thornton said.
Because the renovation isn't entirely done, access to a few unfinished sections will be blocked for this weekend's music festival, but concert spectators will sit in many of the new seats.
The New Orleans Saints' preseason home schedule would begin Aug. 12 if it's not delayed by the NFL lockout. By then, all lower-bowl seats will have been installed in a changed configuration that hugs the rectangular shape of the football field, bringing many sideline spectators closer to the field than they were in the old, semi-oval layout.
Under the sideline sections are new, 7,000-square-foot lounges. Ticket-holders in those areas will be able to use an exclusive entrance to the stadium, passing through a set of glass doors, above which wide strips of cherry wood paneling follow the contour of the ceiling to a bar across the lounge.
The floors are a combination of polished granite and carpet, and white leather furniture completes a look similar to a contemporary boutique hotel lobby.
The altered configuration has increased capacity from a little less than 70,000 to nearly 73,000 for Saints games, and the main concourse has been completely rebuilt. Footbridges that linked the old concourse to the seats are gone. The concourse is now about three times wider with new tile flooring and brighter cove lighting overhead. Larger concession stands finished with stainless steel can handle up to 20 percent more customers at a time.
Restrooms are new and their capacity doubled. About 100 large flat-screen TVs hang from the underside of the second deck, aimed at those sitting in the top portions of the lower bowl or walking along the concourse.
The newest work also included the widening of a ramp to one of the main entrances and the installation of a permanent staircase to a public outdoor plaza called Champion's Square, which opened last year.
Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation director Jay Cicero said the winning bids he developed for the 2013 Super Bowl and 2012 Final Four would have gone nowhere if not for the transformation of the Superdome and the surrounding development it has spurred.
"It has been absolutely a key part of the whole process ... and will be a major feather for New Orleans' next bids," Cicero said.
Next to the dome is an office high-rise that Saints owner Tom Benson bought as part of an agreement locking the franchise into the dome through 2025. The state will consolidate scattered New Orleans offices in the Benson Tower, leasing space at what critics say is higher than market rates. State officials have justified the deal as a way to reward Benson for keeping his NFL team in Louisiana long-term and putting a heavily damaged and long dormant downtown high-rise back into commerce.
Also nearby is a Hyatt hotel, which became a symbol of Katrina's devastation when dozens of its floor-to-ceiling windows were blown out, leaving exposed curtains flapping in the wind. In October, it is finally expected to reopen after a $275 million renovation of 1,200 rooms and 200,000 square feet of exhibition and meeting space.
Hyatt general manager Michael Smith said the Superdome's restoration was a primary reason -- particularly during a national recession -- that financing went through for the hotel.
For several years, Thornton has referred to the Superdome as a symbol of the city's recovery. His home in a neighborhood near Lake Pontchartrain was flooded during Katrina. He hopes the pride he has taken in the renovation of his home is similar to the feeling Louisiana residents will share in seeing the changes in the dome.
"People in this area kind of think of the Superdome as an extension of their home because they've spent a lot of their weekends here," Thornton said. "So I hope they're proud of it when they come in."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press