Maybe it was a cosmic moment, but last week the first phase of the new University Hospital complex opened during the same week that the Superdome’s 40th anniversary was celebrated. “Hmmm,” I thought, “there must be parallels.”
• Both were among the largest public construction projects in the nation at the time they were built.
• Both faced serious opposition and charges of being boondoggles.
• Both cleared out, and established a new presence in blighted neighborhoods.
• Both were built in the city, near the business district and established a new economic force.
We’ll have to wait and see what history’s verdict will be on the hospital complex, which already has built-in stability with the new Veterans Hospital being part of the campus, but, after 40 years, it is fair to declare the Superdome to be a success.
One lesson to remember is that sometimes, indeed quite often, success comes in ways other than predicted. As a setting for theatrical events, the dome was never as successful as predicted — for most it was too big and too cavernous. Even the mighty Ringling Brothers Circus was dwarfed in the building. It never really worked that well for basketball and there was minor league baseball, but it only lasted one season. Here again, the place was too big. And the dome never worked out well for Tulane football, which is now in it's rightful home on a college campus.
Nevertheless, we would not have the New Orleans Saints were it not for the promise of the dome and other opportunities have happened including hosting seven Superbowls. College national championships have been decided on the turf and in an age of bowl game saturation, the Sugar Bowl has remained an important event.
During the Saints championship season, the dome became the center of the universe. However, for most of the building's four decades, redevelopment of the surrounding neighborhood into an entertainment area was slow– Now there is Champions Square and sports bars.
For those who were worried that the dome would be easy pickings for scandal there has been very little, other than an early squabble over janitorial contracts. As far as we know the fiscal history of the building has been amazingly honest. In fact it may be that the building's greatest asset has been as a cash cow. In what was a brilliant strategy, refinanced dome bonds paid for the arena next door which would save costs by using the dome’s parking and air conditioning system. Dome bonds would also finance Zephyr stadium and the Alario center.
Other cities built domed stadiums in the same era, as well; but none, including the first covered stadium, Houston's Astrodome, nor Seattle’s King Dome or Minneapolis’s Humphrey dome were as good. The latter two no longer exist; the former stands as a relic.
We know there is a big difference between building a hospital and running a stadium, but both are examples of defying the critics, thinking big and taking chances. And both were done in the heart of the city. All the better for the economy. All the easier for the doctors to get to Saints games.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), has been released. It is now available at local bookstores and at book web sites.
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