In New Orleans, the Saints may go marching out

City fights to keep its football team in town - and its economy above water.

This old port city was ready to boom when the Saints came.

Segregation was over and the oil and gas industry was in high gear. The first kickoff of the New Orleans Saints football team in the Louisiana Superdome in 1975 before 69,000 people signaled New Orleans's entry into the heavyweight league of American cities.

For a time.

The oil-driven boom was short-lived, and the downslide has been wrenching.

Now, after a decade of slipping fortunes and fleeing residents, even the beloved Saints are threatening to leave town. It's enough to create a sinking feeling in a city already below sea level.

"We must reinvent Louisiana," the state's economic-development department concludes bluntly in a recent report. "We must face the realities of the global economy, the necessity of competitiveness, and the hard truth that our natural resources are no longer enough to sustain us."

For Louisiana's linchpin city, the biggest problem may be the state's reputation for corrupt government, where leaders lack the political will to uplift the region.

The lack of leadership and years of oil and gas doldrums are reflected in one stark fact: New Orleans was one of the only major American cities to see no upward swing in employment numbers between 1992 and 1999.

While other cities around the country grabbed for shares of the high-tech economy, New Orleans is only now trying to catch up.

In a similar way, the Saints are trying to keep up in the National Football League. Team owner Tom Benson says the city lacks the corporate base to keep an NFL franchise competitive.

Negotiations with Gov. Mike Foster (R) are under way to boost the team's revenue by building a new stadium or milking more money out of the state-owned Superdome.

"The Saints are like a tradition. We're known for Mardi Gras and we're known for the Saints," football fan Carol Williams said. "It's like the city would lose one of its children."

The possible loss of civic pride is only the emotional side of the sinking feeling here. The geological side, if less in the news, is more tangible.

It's common for people to marvel at the stupidity of the French to build their fledgling colony in the swamps of the Mississippi River in 1718. Shea Penland, a geologist who tracks the city's subsidence, says New Orleans could be permanently flooded in 50 to 100 years. The French Quarter, its highest elevation, has sunk two feet in 60 years.

A direct hit from a hurricane could put the city under seven feet of water or more, just like hurricane Betsy did in 1965.

Scientists say millions of dollars need to be channeled to wetlands and levee projects to stave off land loss to the sea.

While nature menaces, business has fled.

The city's last Fortune 500 headquarters, Entergy Corp., is on the way out because of a $13.9 billion merger with a Florida-based utility, the FPL Group.

About 600,000 square feet of office space lie empty in the downtown, echoing with unfulfilled oil deals.

Along with lost jobs, it's estimated that 210,000 people have left the metropolitan area in the past 18 years.

Coming on the heels of hometown losses from department-store Maison Blanche to Louisiana Land and Exploration, the loss of the Saints would leave New Orleans feeling empty.

The team's down-home, loyal following, after enduring years of losing, was rewarded in the 2000 season as the Saints won their first division title and playoffs.

Gritty, hardworking head coach Jim Haslett became a role model for a city struggling to define itself. The euphoria was cut short in January when team owners began grumbling about finances and the future. It was a bitter twist for fans.

But with or without football, New Orleans is moving ahead.

The old Warehouse District is now a vibrant art district. Low-skilled workers don't head to factories along the Mississippi River anymore; instead, they commute on buses and streetcars into the French Quarter to work as bouncers, cooks, and janitors.

"Tourism is replacing what was lost in manufacturing and warehousing," says former New Orleans mayor Moon Landrieu.

Tourism, growing faster than the national average in the late 1990s, generates about $8 billion annually for Louisiana, supporting 112,000 jobs.

"People are optimistic about the city," despite all its challenges, says Silas Lee, a pollster at Xavier University here. "The city will diversify its economy because it has no other option."

Adds former mayor Landrieu: "If the Saints leave, we would go on, just like we've gone on after floods, the Civil War, and hurricanes. We were a great city before the NFL came and we'd be a great city if the NFL leaves."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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