One thing about the Louisiana Superdome everyone will readily concede is that it shapes up as the Taj Mahal of sport. Beyond that, don't look for agreement on anything. Uncertainty over the proposed stadium persisted last week, even as demolition workers, hard-muscled men like Sylvester Williams, finished clearing a 30-square-block site for it in downtown New Orleans. "They got a disputement about the stadium," Williams confided, dismounting one afternoon from a dump truck. "I don't know if they'll ever build it."
Similar thoughts have been troubling people who have toiled even more intimately to build the 80,000-seat domed stadium. If constructed, it will be one of the world's most capacious buildings, in a league with St. Peter's Basilica and the Pentagon. It will be a sporting palace only slightly less believable than the extravaganzas being dreamed up for it. For example, Dave Dixon, its executive director, talks of staging eight high school basketball games simultaneously. To minimize the confusion, the referees would use whistles of different pitch. That scheme was greeted with incredulity when the ebullient Dixon first advanced it, although it certainly fared better than a suggestion to use the Superdome for bullfighting, a sport that state authorities consider illegal.
Indeed, there seem to be some people cynical enough to question almost everything about the Louisiana Superdome, starting with its price tag of $129.5 million. That would be a grand sum under any circumstances (the Houston Astrodome cost $31.6 million), but what makes it even harder to accept is that when Louisiana voters approved a domed stadium by better than 3 to 1 back in 1966, the cost was put at $35 million. When the figure began to grow shortly afterward, the stadium's No. 1 supporter, flamboyant and football-loving Governor John J. McKeithen, shook his head and drawled, "Well, we're not gonna let a couple of million dollars stop us," a vow he has repeated in so many words every time the estimated cost, possessing what seems like a life of its own, has risen. The increase now amounts to 270%.
At a time when the subject of constructing stadiums is kicking up controversy across the U.S.—in New York, Detroit, Buffalo, Kansas City—the battle of New Orleans is fiercest of all. Opponents have dragged the matter into 20 courtrooms, a burden of litigation that has forced a second postponement in the sale of construction bonds, this at a moment of growing sluggishness in financial markets. Meanwhile, charging that the domed stadium involved some of the worst shenanigans ever perpetrated on an electorate that has suffered many, some representatives in the state legislature upriver in Baton Rouge tried to resubmit the issue to another statewide vote. Debate became so heated one day last week that two bristling Senators squared off on the floor of the legislature.
Although they had beaten back every judicial and legislative challenge so far, such fervent Superdome supporters as Dixon and New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu could not altogether rule out the possibility that the project might somehow be killed. "Any jackass can kick a barn down," said the stocky, wavy-haired Landrieu, smoking an after-lunch cigar beneath the overhead fans of Antoine's. "Anybody can call somebody a thief or a crook."
But the person really on the defensive is McKeithen, whose ardent support for any New Orleans project is a departure in a state where governors traditionally make political whipping boys out of the New Orleans city slickers. A second-term Democrat who affects country ways even while he evidences periodic, and very sophisticated, ambitions for national office, McKeithen bravely insists, "I thought this here stadium was a good thing at $35 million, you follow me? And I think it's an even better thing now." The governor blames inflation and runaway construction costs for part of the increase, attributing the rest to changes in original stadium plans—greater seating capacity, for example, that would, he promises, produce revenue to more than offset the increased costs.
He further argues that the Superdome, by stimulating tourism and helping attract industry, would indirectly generate $100 million a year in "economic benefits" for Louisiana and come as a godsend to New Orleans, a city with urban woes as thick as Creole gumbo. Those troubles, including a decaying port, slum housing and crumbling streets, were brought on at least in part by New Orleans' notorious civic tightfistedness for anything other than bigger and better Mardi Gras floats. Then one magnolia-perfumed morning the city woke to find itself in involuntary secession from the New South, epitomized by Atlanta and—more disturbing by far—its Gulf Coast rival, Houston.
The appeal of anchoring a civic revival to a stadium, however, went beyond the obvious pleasure that would come from consigning Houston's Astrodome, with its paltry 50,000 seats, to obsolescence. New Orleans is a rabid sports town, especially for football. Still, voices were heard—and their volume increased with distance from New Orleans—to the effect that the money could be better spent. The
Baton Rouge Morning Advocate calculated that for the sum, a $156-a-month raise could be given to every municipal policeman in the state for the next 20 years. Nor did all the opposition come from outside the city. The Vieux Carr� Courier, a New Orleans weekly, said the Superdome raised the specter of "an economy based largely on sports events." Yet other opponents must have been unclear which sports events the paper had in mind. They pointed to the rather remarkable fact that Dave Dixon, for all his talk about high school basketball, could not claim a single permanent tenant. He could only hope that the showplace would help lure a big-league baseball franchise, and while both Tulane and the New Orleans Saints were expected to play on the Super-dome's artificial turf, neither, concerned as they were about the prospect of high rentals, had yet committed itself to abandoning the 80,000-seat Tulane Stadium in favor of the new facility.
As the state legislature convened in mid-May, tensions over the Superdome were heightened by continuing charges of wrongdoing in high places and by a wide-open gubernatorial primary, one in which the stadium was definitely a hot issue. The race is to succeed McKeithen, who is prohibited from a third successive term but is threatening to run for the U.S. Senate or come back in four years to seek the governorship again.
Either way, McKeithen professes to welcome the chance to stake his political future on the domed-stadium issue. "Let 'em lay that dome right on me," he boomed as he paced the floor of the governor's mansion one morning recently, his handsome square-jawed face working on a wad of gum. "I'll come out of that chute a-snortin' and a-pawin'." Then he sat down, as if it were necessary to conserve energy for the task, and discussed his accomplishments, which ranged from attracting new industry to helping Louisiana retain nickel pay phones. It is the only state offering such a bargain.