Doing it right

The New Orleans Arena at 10
AN ORIGINAL ©MIKE LUCKOVICH CARTOON FOR NEW ORLEANS MAGAZINE

Probably no parody of a line from a movie has ever inspired worse public policy than the statement from Field of Dreams, “if you build it they will come.”

Citizens groups across the country took that statement as a mantra to build stadiums and arenas hoping to attract a professional team of some sort. In most cases that team never came.

Back in the 1990s New Orleans planners were subject to guffaws as they envisioned an arena that, in addition to concerts, could possibly – and this was a long shot – attract an NBA team. Foolishly the arena was built and, at first, the best the building could attract was a minor league hockey team. But then one day, as though there was a thunder from the heavens, the skies opened to the sound of a clarion call and – we’ll be damned – “they” actually came.

New Orleans getting a second chance as the home of an NBA franchise had more to do with internal politics and dissention in Charlotte, N.C., from which the franchise relocated, than it did with our natural charm and shaky economic feasibility, but without the arena there would have been no opportunity. Against the odds, Hugo and his Hornets landed here. If the movie wanted to speak a true statement, the classic line might be, “If you build it you might have a chance; if you don’t, you never will.”

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the arena, which formally opened Oct. 19, 1999. The building is best known now as the home of the Hornets but, in a state known for its political skullduggery, the building should be revered as a masterpiece of government planning, something that the rest of the world could envy.

Louisiana did it right. There was no tax increase for locals because the building was paid for with refinanced bonds from the Superdome, which, by the 1990s, had already been paid for. Adding to the brilliance of the plan was that there was no land cost because the arena was built on Superdome property. The new building also utilized the Dome’s parking facility and its air conditioning system, so there were no expenses in either of those areas. New Orleans got an NBA-caliber arena for $84 million, a fraction of what it would have cost most cities to build such a building. (A similar facility, the Toyota Center in Houston – the home of the NBA Rockets – opened in 2003 and cost $235 million; the arena that the city of Charlotte built to win back an NBA franchise had an estimated cost of $260 million.) And let it be known that when most of the deal- making was done, Edwin Edwards was in his fourth term as governor, 1992-’96, and the project was built scandal-free.

Within its first decade the building has already housed an NBA All-Star game and is one of the most successful concert locations in the country.
SMG, the management company that runs the arena and the Superdome, is the best of its type with a skill at maintaining the facility and attracting events to it. (SMG officials played a major role in attracting the Hornets to New Orleans.)

There have been some setbacks: Hurricane Katrina damaged the building. In the aftermath the facility lost bookings and – almost – the Hornets. Also, efforts to secure naming rights for the building have, to date, not been successful. Nevertheless, the building was repaired and bookings are plentiful. The Hornets franchise is secure. As for naming rights, we confess to preferring the publicity value of having the city’s name attached to it. There is a swagger to hearing the guys on ESPN refer to “The New Orleans Arena.”

As the building reaches its first decade we offer the visionaries who fought for it and the administrators who have maintained it a sincere thank you. The building’s success is far more than could’ve been expected in such a short time period. And to other communities, having their own “field of dreams” and thinking about building something that would compete with our arena, we say, don’t believe the line from the movie, it doesn’t work that way – at least hardly ever.

Categories: Speaking Out

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