The Times-Picayune – Now that the New Orleans Saints have been eliminated from the playoffs, the cacophony of hammers and drills at the Superdome can begin.
Work will start on the final phase of the remodeling of the Dome on Jan. 24, a five-month project aimed at further sprucing up the building that has undergone massive upgrades since Hurricane Katrina wrecked the 36-year-old venue in 2005.
When construction begins, workers will make drastic changes to the lower bowl of the stadium, reconfiguring it to increase seating by 3,500, widening the plaza concourse, building two bunker club lounges and adding additional concession stands.
Also part of the $85 million renovation that was put in place as part of the 15-year lease extension between the Saints and the state, crews will start tearing down the temporary stairs that lead from Champions Square to the Dome, replacing them with permanent steps. Workers also will complete the installation of express elevators that will taxi coaches and media from the ground level of the stadium to the press box.
“Phase by phase, this will be a brand new stadium,” Saints owner/executive Rita Benson LeBlanc said. “Our goal is to bring the best game-day experience to our fans. The ease and the convenience of the new bunker clubs is unique in that it will bring our fans quickly and as close to the action as possible.
“Creating these additional club seats will allow us to remain competitive in attracting future Super Bowls, the premiere sporting event in the world. The entire lower configuration is structured to provide every fan a premium vantage point with the latest in-stadium technology. We are very excited about this new phase. When people tune in to a Saints game, it is a positive, non-stop infomercial for New Orleans, and that is important to not only the Saints but to our fans and our city.”
The work is scheduled for completion by June 13, according to Dome officials.
Work could have begun sooner, but the crews had to wait until the Saints were eliminated from the postseason. The Saints lost 41-36 at Seattle on Jan. 8 in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
With the exceptions of events in the stadium’s super lounges, the construction will close the stadium for the next five months. But it will be open in time for the annual Essence Festival on Fourth of July weekend.
“These next few months are extremely important,” said Superdome construction manager Pat Tobler. “The scope of the work is such that it is either done or it is not done. There is no in-between.
“We are completely tearing out the existing steel deck bowl and replacing it with a pre-cast concrete deck. It’s a reconfiguration of the seats. The seats are moving closer to the field, more in line with the NFL standard of today. There will be 3,500 new seats in the lower bowl. So we are either going to get it done or we are not. We are optimistic it will be done.”
For years, Saints and state officials have boasted about the Dome becoming, in essence, a new stadium after all the renovations were completed.
But phase II of the renovations will serve as the most visible transformation of the interior of the stadium, which will seat a little more than 73,000.
Soon work crews will begin to tear down the sideline seating of the plaza level, leaving only the end zone seating structure.
Crews then will move the sideline seats about 10 feet closer to the playing field while squaring off the stands, giving the lower bowl a squared look instead of an oval setup.
Plans also call for two 7,500-square-foot bunker lounges on each side of the stadium. The lounges will be equipped with flat-screen TVs, granite counter tops and full-service bars. The lounges will serve 4,500 fans, whose old plaza seats will be upgraded to premium tickets, giving those fans leather chairs with cup-holders.
The concourses on the plaza level also will be extended, closing in space between the concourse and plaza seating to add new restrooms and concession areas.
Also, the plaza outside the stadium at Gates A and C will be widened, making it easier for fans to get into the Dome. And all elevator cabs will be upgraded.
“In the 36-year history of this building, we are about to see the most visible and transformable change that we have ever seen,” said Doug Thornton, the regional vice president of SMG, the company that manages the Dome and the adjacent New Orleans Arena on behalf of the state. “The Katrina renovation was largely a repair job. We just replaced old finishes with new finishes.
“But what we are about to do is change the geometry of the building in the lower bowl and create a much wider concourse, which is going to be a very visible change for someone walking into the building for the first time next fall. That is very exciting for us.”
The Dome already has undergone a massive overhaul.
Last year work was completed on the addition of 16 new luxury box suites on the 300 level and new a press box on the 700 level. The Saints’ locker room also has been remodeled, more than doubling the size of their old chambers with high-tech medical equipment added.
Other enhancements that have already been made include a 6,000-square-foot Saints Team Shop located at Gate B and the demolition of the Gate C bridge that led from the New Orleans Centre to the Superdome. In the bridge’s place, a massive staircase has been added, serving as an entryway into the stadium from the new 60,000-square-foot Champions Square presented by Verizon, a sports and entertainment area on LaSalle Street.
“There was a commitment to make this a world-class stadium,” Superdome Commission chairman Ron Forman said. “There were a lot of things that had depreciated, a lot of things that needed to be upgraded. Our expectations are high that we are going to meet the standards that were established to make this a world-class stadium.”
The partnership between the Saints and the state appears to be working.
Under the previous deal negotiated with then-Gov. Mike Foster in 2001, the Saints were due $186 million over 10 years. When the lease was extended in 2009, the state’s financial obligation to the NFL franchise was reduced based on a sliding scale, leaving the state on the hook for up to $6 million annually depending on new revenue generated from Dome renovations.
The Saints sold out their suites last season, Champions Square has been deemed a success and the increased capacity at the Dome will certainly create more revenue.
“It’s still too early to tell because we have not sold the seats yet and we have not sold the extra concessions,” Thornton said. “But it appears the partnership is working. The new assets are having the affect that we had hoped it would have, and that is to generate additional income for the team and thereby lower the state’s obligation.”
Both Saints and state officials said the upgrades to the Dome will only help land major sporting events in the future.
“By doing this we are able to keep the Dome competitive with other modern facilities,” Thornton said. “It is important that we stay competitive when competing for Final Fours, BCS championships, Super Bowls and the like. And I think this will be the finishing touches of that and will keep us competitive as we go forward.”
By Nakia Hogan