Dick Van Dyke stands at the bar in Brennan's, where the bartender is telling him that his Coca-Cola is on the house. In town to film a Perry Como TV special—with lots of backing from the New Orleans city government—the impish Van Dyke asks, "Oh, is this one on the taxpayers?" No, but here's one that is—the Louisiana Superdome, currently topping the charts with an operating budget (including debt service on the huge bond issue) of $58,000 each and every day. Make that a double Coke.
Better make it a triple, with a double shot of red ink on the side. For a while last week it seemed possible that the Dome might collapse, fiscally speaking, for want of something like $4.3 million needed to keep it operating after Feb. 29. It didn't happen for a lot of reasons, including civic and state pride, political considerations and the dismal fact that even shut down tight the Dome would still cost the taxpayers $29,000 a day in interest and principal payments on its bonds. Getting close to the wire, Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards performed a bit of sleight of hand, transferring the $4.3 million from the Dome's bond repayment fund to its operating fund. That fixed things for the moment. Next year, if nothing goes seriously wrong, the governor will only have to make up an expected $15 million deficit.
The Dome was conceived 10 years ago and financed in a political atmosphere as spicy as Louisiana hot sauce, and having survived 22 lawsuits and two grand jury investigations, the administration of this wonder structure is in the process of being shaken up. The $173-million complex has had a slew of things go wrong with it besides finances, and the governor has hired a Massachusetts consulting firm to make a thorough investigation of its operations, including those of flamboyant and outspoken Ben Levy, the Dome's executive director.
In effect, Edwards is wresting control of the operation away from Levy and his political patron, Moon Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans and head of the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District Commission, the board that controls the entire Superdome package.
After the first quarter of operation returned a mere $543.35 it became clear that bookings would be the major stumbling block for whoever runs the show.
"The problem is a huge one," says Edwards. "We must make every effort to fill the facility on as many days as possible." Nearly all politicians and administrators call the Superdome a "facility," as if to hold the reality of its size and scope at verbal arm's length. Estimates vary, but it seems that to approach breaking even the Superdome must have something happening on its main arena floor at least 200 days a year. The rate now is about 140 days a year. Pro football (the Saints), pro basketball (the Jazz), college basketball ( Tulane and the University of New Orleans), plus a few exhibition baseball games scheduled for this spring add up to no more than 50% of the necessary total. That is about as much as sports can contribute at present. The rest will have to come from trade shows, concerts, spectaculars and such extravaganzas as ice shows and the circus.
The Dome's technical glitches can probably be fixed eventually, but the financial strain is likely to go on. Over and over the governor points out that the Dome was not meant to make a profit. "It won't make money in our lifetime or our children's," is the way he puts it.
But let us forget dismal economics and view the "facility" as it stands today.
"Critics said that seagulls would eat the polyurethane roof, that the pilings would give way, that the TV screens wouldn't work and that the movable stands wouldn't move," says Levy, "but none of that came true. Sure we have problems. You have problems when you buy a new home, don't you? And we're not exactly talking about a two-bedroom house here."
The Dome is uncompromisingly contemporary in style. The interior resembles a Holiday Inn motel room blown up to fantastic proportions. When you put 97,000 people in a big motel room, you've got lots of fun. And trouble.