With the vision of keeping the Mercedes-Benz Superdome simultaneously contemporary and equipped to handle the demands of the future, funding has been approved to hire an architectural firm to develop a plan for future renovations. New Orleans Saints President Dennis Lauscha sat down with senior writer John DeShazier to discuss the thought process behind the renovations, how they could assist the Saints and New Orleans in future bids to secure Super Bowl, and more.
JD: Why is there a need for renovations/upgrades at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome?
Lauscha: There's a lot of reasons for us to consider and start working on renovations for the Superdome. I think what we've done as a community and as a state and as a team is, we've invested in the building at various stages of its life and it's kept the building very relevant. It was a great building to begin with but still, for it to be relevant and cutting edge, I think we have to continue to invest in the building. We're at the next stage in many respects. We're almost halfway through the last (lease agreement) deal that we signed, we just finished a renovation process starting in 2006 and somewhat culminating with the new video boards that we just put in. It's just time to look toward the future. Our lease expires in 2025, it'll be here before you know it. We have a very good relationship with the state, we have a very good relationship with SMG – I think if you asked them, they'd feel that they have a good relationship with us. And so, because that working relationship is so good, we're going to try to take advantage of it and really try to start laying the groundwork for the future and build on this foundation.
JD: What specific renovations will be implemented to keep it cutting edge?
Lauscha: Well, this is very preliminary. Really, the process begins with hiring someone to help us construct a master plan on exactly where we're going with the building, where we're going with the property, where we're going with the campus, because it's a fairly large campus. If you consider the Superdome, Smoothie King Center and Champions Square, you're talking about 2.5 million people coming to events in those venues. So they're very active buildings. So the master plan is basically a look from 50,000 feet, if you will, to try to get an idea of where we're going, what the future looks like and at the same time, we want to make sure we address whatever needs that are current. Because this is such an important step, we think it's important for us to get people engaged. So part of us selecting Gensler (headquartered in San Francisco), who will be the architect, and Trahan, architects here in Louisiana who will assist us in this – part of that was making sure that they bought into the process that we want to follow. And that is making sure we get the fans engaged, getting our employees and staff engaged, getting experts engaged, getting our vendors engaged – really, getting our stakeholders engaged – so that we can absolutely renovate the building in the best ways possible.
JD: The Superdome is its own unique building, but do you look at renderings from other facilities and say, 'We can borrow a little of this and a little of that?' Or is the Superdome so unique that it pretty much has to be its own entity in terms of modifications?
Lauscha: It's very unique, but I would not be telling the truth if I said that we won't steal a good idea from someone else (laughing). We'll take the best practices and the best aspects of different stadiums that we've seen and we'll try to incorporate it into what we want to do here, but obviously protecting the integrity and design of the building. We know it's a very historic piece of our skyline and it means a lot to a lot of people, and it's functioning very well as it is now. We don't want to make gigantic changes to it that would affect that. But part of Gensler, and Gensler is one of the biggest architectural firms in the world if not the biggest architectural firm in the world, one of the selling points with them was their experience in buildings all across the world. We'll try to tap their abilities to make sure we get the best building that we can get.
JD: How odd is it for a building that's the Superdome's age to still be living, breathing and able to modify to whatever the best practices are nowadays?
Lauscha: When it was built, it was really built with a lot of foresight. You have to kind of pat those guys on the back for doing a really great job. The reason why the building works so well is because of the capacity – the amount of square feet under the roof and its ability for us to move things around. If you look at and go back to some of the buildings that have been torn down, they had nowhere near the capacity that this building has from a per-square-foot percentage. And the same can be said with buildings that are being built now. Even the newer buildings are being built at capacities that are at, or sometimes a little smaller, than the Superdome. So the Superdome really was built at the right square-foot capacity, and that's allowed us to move things around. If it wasn't for that, I think we'd be at a different stage but because of the way it was designed, and it was designed so well, it allows us to continue to move different things around in the Superdome. So many times, over the last two decades, we've kind of scratched our heads at times and said, 'I don't know if we can move this or move that.' But we've had a lot of talented people that have worked with us that have said, 'No, we can do this. We can move these different aspects around.' And part of some of the preliminary discussions that we've had right now are some very large changes to egress and ingress and moving people around concourses. If we can reshape some of the concourses and we can reshape some of the pedestrian waves and vertical movement throughout the building, I think fans will really get excited about that. One of the biggest questions we get is, 'Can you do something about making the concourses wider?' We're certainly going to try to address that in this stage. In doing so, you have to make a pretty big commitment to moving some big items around and I think we're ready to make that commitment.
JD: With the state being in the budget situation that it's in, the natural question would be, How is this going to be funded?
Lauscha: I think starting early helps with that as well. Because I think at the end of the day, what we're looking to do is model this renovation, in many respects, after the way we modeled and the way we worked at it the last time we did a master plan. And that was come up with a plan, on that plan have a menu of items, we prioritize those items and then after we prioritize them and we have prices associated with them, we try to figure out how we're going to fund those improvements. Now, it's really early on – heck, we haven't even seen the menu of items yet, much less the prices. But we do have a ballpark of where we think we're going to land and I think, as has been the case in the renovations that were just completed and other renovations that have occurred over time, I think there will be obviously a state component, a team component and then, as much as we can through some of the NFL various stadium financing plans. As much as there is capacity there, we will pursue that as well. It's threefold – it's the team, the NFL and the state.
JD: Super Bowl-wise, since the last several Super Bowls have been awarded to new stadiums, does this help from that regard? Do you feel there will be a settling along that front, because not every team is building a new stadium and maybe the NFL will go back to franchises and stadiums that they've partnered with the in past?
Lauscha: I think having the new stadiums were certainly the ace in the hole, if you will, with regard to getting the Super Bowl. We are starting to play out that stretch of brand-new stadiums, starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel (laughing), if you will, for teams that consider themselves Super Bowl host cities. But I think these improvements will go a long way in our pitch to host the Super Bowl. In fairness, there's been very little discussion that in order to get the Super Bowl, we had to make large renovations to the Superdome. I think what people sometimes don't see, or perhaps read and forget, is when it comes from the pure economics of hosting a Super Bowl in the Superdome, the economics are very good. The last couple of bids we've had on the Super Bowl, we've either been one or two with regard to the best economics associated with having that Super Bowl in the stadium. Having said that, it's not always just about economics that are the reasons for owners to choose to come here or not come here. The biggest component had been just the new stadiums that were being built and the commitment that was shown by the communities. I think the owners wanted to reward that commitment by allowing Super Bowls to be hosted in those cities. Having said that, again, I would say that these renovations will significantly help the fan experience which, when you combine that with the finances, really makes a compelling case that we should be back in the regular rotation.
JD: What would be the time frame for renovations? Obviously, this would not interrupt the football season.
Lauscha:Yes, the thought is the time frame would be predicated on the football seasons, working in between the football seasons and to maximize the calendar as best we can. We've got to remember, it's not always just the football season. We have to be considerate of big events that occur in the Superdome, like the Essence Festival. The Sugar Bowl, I know is around the same time as our season, but still that's a consideration. BCS, you have NCAA Final Four, so there are a lot of big events that are coming through the Superdome over the next couple of years, so we have to work around those events. The good thing here is that the Superdome, LSED (Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District), SMG, the Saints – I think we have a bit of a track record of being able to pull that off. Every one of the projects that we've started have come on time, at budget or under budget. So I'm pretty confident that we'll be able to do that as well, but you have to be real cognizant of the schedule when you're making those decisions. So it will be a multi-year phase-in project, is what I anticipate.
JD: Will all of this take place before the lease expires?
Lauscha: I hope so, or at least be in process before the lease expires. I'd like to be able to sign another long-term lease as we did, another 15-year lease. We do have a five-year extension. I don't know how that's going to roll into ultimately what we're going to end up at, but certainly I think we'd like to get another longer-term extension. And that's good for Super Bowls as well. As the NFL continues to push out the rewarding of the Super Bowls over certain years, you never want that you're bidding on a Super Bowl in a year that you're in, or a year that's after, when your lease expires. We also know, and part of the discussion – and the state recognizes that, and we recognize it, too – is that as you get closer to the deadline, one side may leverage the other side based on the timing. That never is an efficient way to do business or is an efficient way to really hammer out a long-term deal. I think we've found that out in the past. So I think getting started early – they have a great team on the state side, I hope they think they have a great team in us – and we'll just try to get it accomplished.
JD: Is there a time frame for those lease extension talks to begin?
Lauscha: There is a period where we can renew or extend the lease. We're not in that period yet, we're not even close to that period yet. But again, it's just looking to the future, seeing the big events that are coming through the stadium, seeing the big events that are being planned to come through here – a la, more Super Bowls – and just trying to get ahead of it.