New Orleans When the manager of the Louisiana Superdome surveys the stadium’s latest and most extensive renovation project yet, 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 has most of its 24,500 seats in place, Thornton reflected on how much the Superdome had changed since Katrina struck on 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 there stewed in summer heat without air conditioning or 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 hosted its first Super Bowl in 1978.
The Superdome is scheduled to host its seventh Super Bowl in February 2013, capping a 13-month span in which it will also host college football’s BCS national championship next January and the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four the following spring.
Because the renovation is not 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’ home exhibition slate 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.