Gov. Kathleen Blanco appears to have gotten the message from local political and business leaders regarding the idea of a new riverfront football stadium. The chorus of opposition was unanimous and to the point: No way.
Blanco several months ago floated the idea of a new stadium on riverfront land that has already been dedicated to Phase IV of the Morial Convention Center. She noted that several folks had suggested to her that the tract selected for Phase IV just might be big enough to accommodate a new Saints stadium and a scaled-down version of the convention center expansion. The idea seemed to grow legs for a while, mostly because the hospitality industry and local political leaders restrained their opposition out of deference to the Governess. She had, after all, been a great friend to the tourism industry and to the city as lieutenant governor.
Local business and political leaders were quietly hoping Blanco would drop the idea after several subtle hints were sent her way, but that didn't happen. Instead, she commissioned a feasibility study to see if it could work. There also were signs that the board of the Morial Convention Center (most of whose members she appoints) felt obliged to toe the administration line -- even though they all knew it was a bad idea.
Finally, when it appeared that the proposal just might take flight, Blanco's old friends could restrain themselves no longer. Howls of protest erupted across the business and political spectrum, and she heard them last week during a visit to New Orleans. Local leaders also made it very clear that they want Phase IV in its entirety.
As someone who spent eight years promoting Louisiana tourism, Blanco should know the benefits of an expended convention center. Tourism drives the local economy. It also employs a huge number of working-class voters, who put Blanco in office less than a year ago. To trade Phase IV for a new football stadium thus makes no sense by any measure.
To Blanco's credit, she has backed off the riverfront stadium idea, although she still wants to see the results of the feasibility study. After hearing from local officials, Blanco said that she prefers to renovate the Superdome -- with the Saints picking up part of the tab.
That last wrinkle is a new one, and it shows that Blanco not only "gets it" with regard to the importance of Phase IV, but also that she intends to be a hard-nosed negotiator with Saints owner Tom Benson, who basically wants taxpayers to build a new stadium, pay for its management, but give him all of its cash flow. Blanco said last week she expects Benson to balk at contributing to a Superdome renovation, but she hopes he ultimately will recognize -- as does everyone else in town -- that a renovated dome is the team's best option for the foreseeable future. "I hope he realizes that would be very smart of him to get on board," Blanco said of Benson. "I think that it would show good will."
That was an important message for Blanco to send. Good will has not been Benson's long suit in his dealings with the state, but Blanco is making it clear that she cannot and will not be pushed around. She noted rhetorically that, as governor, she might some day have to choose between maintaining acceptable levels of public health care and giving Benson a new or renovated football stadium. That choice will be an easy one in favor of health care. Her comments also reflect the sentiments of lawmakers in other parts of the state. It took a little while, but politically and economically, this is one issue on which Blanco gets it.