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 Carré 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.
He soon returned to the subject of the Superdome. Working his gum more furiously, he lit into State Senator John Schwegmann, a candidate for governor and the Superdome's prime opponent. "That man's an opportunist, you follow me?" said McKeithen, shaking his head. "He votes agin' everything. Why he even votes 'no' when they call roll." He laughed, pleased with his own joke. It was time to leave for his office and McKeithen strode from the room, pausing momentarily at the mansion's front door to remove the tags—$85, 46 long—from the sleeve of his new white linen suit.
Five minutes later the governor arrived at the remarkable state capitol, an ornate 34-story office tower put up during the Depression—as a monument to himself, Louisianians agreed—by Huey Long, who in his eagerness to serve the people once occupied the offices of U.S. Senator and governor simultaneously for 14 months before reluctantly surrendering the latter. Passing near the spot where Long was fatally wounded by an assassin in 1935, McKeithen rode an elevator marked FOR GOVERNOR ONLY to his fourth-floor office. Inside, he found a box of cigars on his desk, a gift from John Schwegmann.
This was no peace offering, for Schwegmann has a reputation of being a most stubborn adversary. Owner of a chain of nine suburban New Orleans supermarkets, Schwegmann opposed the domed stadium from the start, even though it was originally supposed to cost the state nothing. Under the measure approved by voters in 1966, the Superdome was to be financed by a 4% hotel-motel tax in New Orleans and neighboring Jefferson Parish, with the state explicitly prohibited from putting its credit on the line. Then two years ago, when rising cost estimates made it clear that the hotel tax would no longer be sufficient, McKeithen sidestepped that prohibition by signing a lease between the state and the stadium—an agreement with himself, in effect, since he is also chairman of the stadium commission. It provided that the state's "rental" would take the form of making up any deficits that the stadium might incur.
Although conceding that the lease was probably legal, Schwegmann notes that its effect was to put the state's credit squarely behind the Superdome and fumes that "it's plain morally wrong." Schwegmann is a rumpled little man, an improbable gubernatorial entry, but in a field almost as crowded as this year's Kentucky Derby, he is given a long-shot chance, shades of Canonero II, to ride the stadium issue to victory. The Democratic primary is five months off, but he has been driving around for weeks in his Coupe de Ville with foot-high lettering, SCHWEGMANN FOR GOVERNOR, SAVE LOUISIANA, telling anybody who will listen that the Superdome is "a clear case of fraud and deception."
Not at all reluctant to mix business and politics, Schwegmann has thrown his supermarkets into the fray, to the extent of including in his full-page grocery ads, cheek by jowl with notices of 49¢-a-pound fresh river catfish, campaign pitches warning voters that the domed stadium is being (strange imagery for a grocery ad) "railroaded and ramrodded down their throats." Seated the other day in his office, a glass-enclosed aerie overlooking the check-out counters of one of his stores—where clerks heap groceries into shopping bags identifying him as THE MAN WHO FIGHTS FOR YOUR INTERESTS—Schwegmann predicted that the stadium controversy would end in scandal.
"There's somethin' stinkin' in Denmark," he said, banging his fist on his desk. Across the room his secretary, Miss White, a handsome, middle-aged woman who wears her hair in a chignon, freely joined in the discussion. "It'll all come out in the wash," Schwegmann said, and Miss White added, "Fraud and deception, that's what it is."
Already there have been reports of attempts to solicit kickbacks from construction companies. Anti-Superdome forces accuse McKeithen of using state deposits as a weapon to blackjack a group of Louisiana banks into buying the $16.5 million worth of bonds that were used to purchase and raze the stadium site. They also point out, accurately enough, that relatives of Dave Dixon own property directly across from the site, while stadium supporters counter that Schwegmann wants the stadium built adjacent to real estate he owns in Jefferson Parish.
As this last suggests, stadium opponents are coming in for blows, too. In its January 1971 issue, New Orleans magazine reported at great length that John Joseph Watermeier Jr., president of an anti-dome group with the unfortunate name of HONEST, Inc., had been convicted in 1952 on nine counts of falsifying federal job applications. And, as if to mock Schwegmann's own practice of mixing business with politics, circulars appeared on the Senate floor a couple of weeks ago recounting the time that federal agents caught his supermarkets punching holes in blocks of cheese and selling it as Swiss.
As the crossfire grew more intense, the man most often caught in the middle appeared to be Dixon. His detractors could not resist commenting—if only to talk about a different dome for a change—on a dramatic reversal of his once-receding hairline. The new growth is waggishly referred to as "Astro-hair." Dixon gives the impression of a man helpless before an onslaught of ideas that keep occurring to him. He had a hand in bringing pro football to New Orleans and in starting World Championship Tennis (SI, Feb. 12, 1968), but wound up on the outside in both deals. The Superdome is the creation of Dixon at his most imaginative. Besides having most of the features of the Houston Astrodome, such as air conditioning, plush skyboxes and a stadium club, the projected stadium will have novel touches such as giant overhead TV screens, which will show spectators instant replays and locker-room interviews just as if they were back in their living rooms. The Superdome will also be more flexible, with grandstands that move on rails embedded beneath rollback artificial turf. This will make it possible to set up cozy arenalike configurations of 25,000 seats or less for sports like professional tennis and basketball.
But mostly the stadium will be just plain bigger. Where the Astrodome boasts that an 18-story building would fit under its roof, the New Orleans stadium could fit the Astrodome under its roof. Awesome as it sounds, Dixon has to persuade everyone that it makes economic sense. Just to break even, to meet the interest on the bonds and pay operating expenses, the stadium will have to take in rental revenues of at least $35,000 each and every day of the year, roughly equivalent to the rental paid for a Super Bowl game.
The financial picture seems all the bleaker when one realizes that the Houston Astrodome, built six years ago, has only gradually increased the number of days it is used to 145 and then only because of a baseball team—an asset that New Orleans lacks. Undaunted, Dixon cites studies showing that the Superdome would after a few years of modest deficits start generating profits that would mount to $60 million over 30 years. "We said in 1966 that this thing would be self-supporting, no matter what the cost," insists Dixon. "Well, that's as true today as it was then."
Dixon's projections assume that the Superdome will wind up with Tulane and the Saints plus, at the very least, a big-league baseball franchise shared with another city. They also count on revenues from the stadium's 5,000-car garage and from commercials Dixon expects to sell on those giant TV screens. He plans, moreover, something that few, if any, sports facilities have dared impose on their captive audiences: pay toilets. With the price pegged at a dime, twice as much as a phone call, one Dixon-hired research firm went out and studied the market and then concluded that this source would yield exactly $102,000 in annual income.
Even forces friendly to the stadium have accused Dixon of occasionally overselling it, giving rise to speculation that in the interest of defusing the controversy, his job might be on the line. But nothing of the sort is likely to soothe such an ardent Superdome foe as Joseph Bernstein, a lawyer for HONEST, Inc., whose home on New Orleans' elegant St. Charles Avenue—a replica, complete with 40-foot columns, of Tara in Gone With the Wind—is only scarcely more modest than the building he is fighting.
The house is within walking distance of Tulane Stadium, and Bernstein, an alumnus, argues that it would destroy an important part of the university's tradition if the facility that hosts the annual Sugar Bowl were torn down, as domed-stadium supporters advocate. Beyond that, Bernstein sees the Superdome as a demogogic plot to divert a populace in need of better housing and jobs with circuses instead. "The stadium is a Tower of Babel that will destroy Louisiana," Bernstein gloomily predicted as he sipped a Jack Daniel's late one evening in his book-lined study. "It could be the last gasp of a decadent and dying civilization."
Should the stadium be built over such dire protests, not even Bernstein is likely to complain if it is called McKeithen Stadium, since he and other Superdome opponents regard it as the governor's monument to himself—the same thing everyone said about Huey Long and the high-rise state capitol. But it is illegal nowadays to name a public building in Louisiana for a living person, a prohibition enacted not long after an airport named for one of Huey Long's henchmen had to be rechristened when the fellow was indicted for income-tax evasion. Of course, a statue of McKeithen could always be erected, but even that became less likely when a $28,000 sculpture allowance was pared recently from the Superdome's budget. It was an economy move that few Louisianians seemed to notice.